NJ lawmakers are about to approve a $34.8B budget for 2017
Typically the most important legislation enacted each year, and often among the most contentious, this year’s state budget bill is instead a low-key sideshow heading toward adoption Monday with little fanfare.
It's not that there's bipartisan consensus about the $34.8 billion plan – some Democrats wish it could be changed, some Republicans intend to vote against it. But it’s based largely on Gov. Chris Christie’s blueprint, with approximately $275 million in net changes made by Democrats when compared with Christie's revised budget detailed last month.
"I don't think anyone would agree that this is the most perfect budget that has ever been adopted, and there are any number of changes that each one of us would make if we could," said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic.
It’s being adopted at a time when the state’s not awash in cash, so there’s not much to fight over -- except, of course, for the gas tax and associated tax cuts. That's a separate bill that’s also up for a vote Monday and is consuming nearly all of the attention in Trenton.
Among the changes to the budget made by Democrats are:
- $45 million more for the ‘Senior Freeze’ program, which would allow seniors with incomes up to around $87,000 to qualify. That’s the level in state law, but the state budget has been overriding that to keep the ceiling at $70,000.
- $25 million more for charity care funding for hospitals; Christie reduced that in May
- $25 million for preschool expansion
- A little over $20 million through various welfare initiatives
- $20 million for programmatic stabilization aid to schools
- $20 million for lead programs, divided equally between lead-safe home renovations and school testing
- Around $19 million in higher education grants, directed to Rowan University ($8 million), the New Jersey Institute of Technology ($4.2 million), Stockton University's Atlantic City campus ($4 million), Rowan/Rutgers-Camden ($2.1 million) and Rutgers-Camden ($1 million).
- $15.1 million in aid for nonpublic schools -- $11.3 million for security, $2.4 million for technology and $1.4 million for nurses
- $5 million for Zika virus prevention training for local and county health officials.
- 5 million to avoid cuts to the Educational Opportunity Fund, which helps low-income students.
- The budget bill increases spending by the Legislature by $5 million, or more than 6 percent. Four million of that is done through language added to the budget legislation, though there isn't actually money for it included in the numbers' side of the budget.
"Not a whole lot of money in terms of the $34 billion budget," said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.
"They're small items relatively, and when they total they total a small item, less than 1 percent of the total budget," Schaer said. "But we believe that these small almost cosmetic changes, if I can use that term, represent fundamental change and helpful change in so many people's lives, which we define what government is really all about."
Christie could still use his line-item veto power to delete spending and erase or tweak language in the budget. He typically does.
Even with the additions, two of five Republicans on the Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee voted for the spending plan.
"Because we acted responsibly as a committee, we've had flexibility to adjust our budgets for the current and upcoming fiscal years to account for unexpected shifts in state revenue," said Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris.
Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, R-Monmouth, called it "a much more realistic document than the ones we've seen in the last couple of years," but doesn't support it because it leaves just a $405 million surplus.
"That is razor thin," O'Scanlon said.
On top of that, he contends, are a few signs of trouble. The budget didn't include the projected spending on health benefits for public workers by $250 million, even though savings weren't identified by the committees responsible for plan design, as Christie hoped when he outlined his budget plan in February. Instead it has language saying the committees can still find those savings.
It also projects more revenue than either the Christie administration or the Office of Legislative Services forecast last month.
Both could miss, O'Scanlon said.
"If those things happen, and it's not unlikely at all, we're already $200 million in the hole, right out of the box. That is not responsible," he said.
This year’s budget debate doesn’t include the annual battle over the size of the payment into public workers’ pension funds. Recent years included pushes by the Democrats to boost the payment and pass an income tax hike on millionaires. This year, lawmakers are trying an end run around Christie, by going to voters this November asking if increased payments should be guaranteed through the constitution.
Christie is proposing a $1.86 billion pension contribution in the 2017 budget, equal to 40 percent of the amount actuaries recommend.