“I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” wrote Samuel Beckett, a slogan the GOP would have likely found heartening Thursday, but searching for a metaphor amid the archives of absurdist 20th century drama to apply to the state budget process, Republican Sen. Leonard Lance instead selected Beckett’s most famous – and disturbing – play.
“It’s like ‘Waiting for Godot’,” the minority leader told the senate chamber, “as school districts cry out for a new schools funding formula.”
With the state hanging in the balance, lawmakers settled for an anti-climactic drama – not unlike “Godot,” that in this case lasted a little over a half an hour. The GOP reasserted longstanding complaints about structural deficiencies and an absence in the budget of real reform in the way public schools are funded, while the Democratic Majority proclaimed the virtues of a tax rebate program.
Ultimately there was no great revelation, as the senate unsurprisingly voted for the budget, pretty much along party lines, 22-15; a sentiment the assembly would echo later in the evening.
In the upper house, Sen. Majority Leader Bernard Kenny argued the benefits of the document to the governing body.
“This budget will fully fund 20% property tax cuts for the majority of households in New Jersey and will double the amount of tenant rebates,” said Kenny. “In a $33.4 billion spending plan, $16.7 billion – 50% of the entire state budget – will go to property tax relief. That represents an increase in property tax relief of nearly $2 billion over the current budget.”
During his rebuttal on behalf of the Republicans, Lance admitted the budget process was better than last year, when the governing body didn’t meet its Constitutional deadline of June 30th. He said he likes the fact that there’s no debt in the budget, and no new taxes. He was reasonably happy with the transparency of the process.
The problem with the budget though is it doesn’t address what legislators term the state’s “structural deficit” of $2.5 billion, it doesn’t incorporate a new school funding formula, and its hallmark – a tax rebate program – isn’t sustainable, said Lance. That was a point Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk later amplified in the assembly when she complained about Democrats using the term “tax cuts” to describe money that comes right out of an earlier sales tax hike.
Sen. Joseph Kyrillos likewise chastised the majority party for being proud of a budget that ignores a fundamental structural problem.
“One third of the budget is for school funding,” said Kyrillos. “Where is the new school funding formula?”
He said New Jersey is 47th in the nation in private sector job growth. The state is not growing fast enough to keep pace with spending, and therein lies the problem.
“The clamor and rancor that will inevitably ensue is being postponed, but the day of reckoning is coming,” Kyrillos said.
Sen. Robert Singer took a swing at the budget after Democrats argued that a school funding fix isn’t an overnight formulation.
“If you want a formula, you can take 60 days and get a formula,” said Singer. “The problem is the formula will take money away (from Democratic districts) and give it growth districts. To make us think it’s rocket science is absolutely a sham on the public.”
In the lower house, GOP and Democratic lawmakers alike voiced reservations and full blown criticisms of Gov. Jon Corzine’s expressed interest in privatizing state assets.
“I have a message for Gov. Corzine and Goldman and Sachs investment bankers,” said Assemblyman Joseph Pennacchio. “New Jersey is not for sale.”
Assemblyman Guy Gregg reiterated Kyrillos’ upper house argument about the “slow exodus” each year of greater and greater numbers of residents out of New Jersey.
“You’re not doing anything down here to make it more affordable,” said Gregg.
But Kenny insisted that the budget combines vital services with safeguards for taxpayers, and, in his words, is “built on compassion.”
“Supporters of this document can be proud that while we fought for tax relief, we didn’t do it by ripping out the heart of state government,” said the majority leader. “The budget reflects our commitment to do what we can to help those whose very lives depend on critical state services and support. Because we believe it’s the role of state government to help provide health care to the poor, we will provide $756 million in charity care-related assistance to hospitals – an increase of $173 million in state and federal funds to help families without health insurance.”