Assembly moving forward with budget, schools construction; senators still huddling

TRENTON – The vote on the budget today is expected to go along party lines in the Assembly, which means Democrats have the numbers to pass a $32.9 billion document over the objections of a Republican minority.

For at least one key legislator on the Senate side, however, his "aye" vote for the budget hinges on whether the governing body approves $3.9 billion in borrowing for schools construction in mostly poor school districts.

"We can’t allow 20 plus schools to go unfunded and loss another construction year," said Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex). "This must be done for the children. To me the budget doesn’t make sense if we’re not going to fund these buildings."

Rice and his fellow members of the Essex County delegation talked to other legislators this morning in an effort to get assurance of their support for schools construction. They’re focusing on Democrats, at least on the Assembly side.

Based on their past experience with schools construction, Republicans aren’t convinced that money would be used wisely.

"There are no votes for the budget and schools construction," said Assembly Whip Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), who said the state has not adequately accounted for $9 billion lost in schools construction funding, and fears giving rein to new projects without voter approval.

Assemblyman Gary Chiusano (R-Sparta), added in a statement, "The state already collects enough revenue in the form of taxes and fees. The Democrats need to learn how to prioritize the expenditures, stop the funding of wasteful programs and only support those programs which are the true responsibility of the state."

The Republicans don’t have the numbers to fight the 48-32 Democratic Majority, however.

"It looks like it’s going to fly," Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Montclair) said of the budget.

On the Senate side, "I’m going to be voting of it," state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) said of the budget. "There’s a lot of pain here, across the board. I’m not happy with cutting higher ed funding and hospital funding but pension reform for state workers is long overdue."

Last minute deal-making around pension reform prevented at least one power player from voicing full-blown certainty over the budget’s passage in the state Senate.

"I want to say ‘certainly, it’s going to pass,’ but I’m not certain," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). "A lot of folks are upset about pension reform."

Lesniak’s reference was to state workers union representatives who stormed the halls of government last week with concerns about proposals to limit the pensions of new workers as a cost-saving measure.

The Democratic caucus didn’t like original proposals by state Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-Salem) that included a provision that would have based pension allowances on the top three as opposed to five years of a state worker’s salary.

That’s now off the table, replaced by other measures, such as stripping Lincoln’s Birthday out of the holiday package and making $7,500 the maximum annual salary for which state workers and teachers are eligible to receive a pension. At present, state workers can qualify by making at least $3,000, and teachers qualify at $7,000.

Rice denied that he had worked a pension reform "aye" for schools construction "aye"deal with Sweeney and the South Jersey Democrats.

"I don’t support the pension reform stuff," Rice said. "I don’t like being held hostage."

At 12:30 p.m., Republican Senate caucus members were conferring about what kind of action they would take in their full session this afternoon, according to Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen). Assembly moving forward with budget, schools construction; senators still huddling