Lawmakers prep for hard-core work of writing budget

The Senate and Assembly budget committees begin an intensive department-by-department series of hearings next week.

After the Office of Legislative Services and the Treasury Department deliver budget addresses to the Senate on Monday and the Assembly on Tuesday, both committees will then immerse themselves with individual departments.

The Senate committee on Wednesday will hold hearings with the Department of Community Affairs and the Department of Environmental Protection. Then on Thursday the Assembly committee will deal with transportation issues.

Gov. Chris Christie in his 2011-2012 budget address in February pledged no tax hikes in a $29.4 billion budget. Christie also said the budget would include $200 million in various tax reductions.

“Every department will face scrutiny,” said Sen. Anthony R. Bucco, (R-25), Denville, the GOP Senate budget officer. “No one is skating free on this.”

But in an indication of the partisan nature of the process, Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, (D-6), Voorhees, chairman of that chamber’s Budget Committee, said that the Christie administration’s so-called “tool-kit” measures will draw renewed attention during these upcoming hearings.

The “tool kit” is the package of bills that Christie said would give municipalities the ability to cope with reduced aid from Trenton.  A group of GOP senators earlier this week demanded the Democrats set a date for passing a package of 15 “tool-kit” bills, including measures that would cap employee unused sick leave and eliminate seniority in some Civil Service situations.

But as far as Greenwald is concerned, the “tool-kit” philosophy does not work.

“We are seeing that municipalities have not been given a tax structure” that is workable, Greenwald said, “which is the true crisis in the state. That is what’s broken.’’

Bucco points out, however, that local officials have told them that while the “tool-kit” bills are not a cure-all, they will certainly help.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten anything through other than the 2 percent cap” on tax increases, Bucco said.

And GOP Assembly budget officer Declan O’Scanlon, (R-12), Red Bank said, “We have to make sure that we keep in check our friends on the other side of the aisle from spending more money than we have. We will have to remain ever vigilant because they can’t help themselves, so we have to help them help themselves.”

Christie said in his budget address that tax cuts next fiscal year would be paid for with cuts in spending, which means departments from Community Affairs to Transportation to Environmental Protection to Health and Senior Services and more will have to take turns over the next few weeks defending their needs.

But even though Bucco says no one will escape scrutiny, which does not mean legislators don’t have personal areas of interest.

Bucco, for example, said he is always concerned about Lake Hopatcong, the largest state-owned lake, in Morris County in northwest New Jersey.

The lake receives a grant each year from DEP, but does not have a dependable, dedicated source of funding.

 “Every year we seem to be begging for money to keep the commission going,’’ Bucco said. “I’d like to have a stable source of funding instead of a grant.’’

According to Bucco, a study done several years ago estimated the lake generates about $20 million in revenue a year.  “It’s incumbent upon the state to make sure it stays lively,’’ he said.

And Greenwald confesses deep concerns about health care funding.

“What we are hearing right now is a growing concern among the hospital community, which is the state’s second-largest employer, that money is moving away from safety nets,’’ he said. “There is a ripple effect to at-risk families.  The governor’s  ‘shared sacrifice’ is really only a sacrifice by the middle class and the poor.’’

 O’Scanlon also said he is concerned about health care issues.

“We have to make sure we take care of those folks who are most vulnerable,’’ O’Scanlon said. He said that the so-called federal stimulus money will be exhausted as of this year, which he estimated at approximately $800 million, mostly Medicaid-related funds. 

But in general he referred to this year’s budget-making process as something of a transitional year.  “We don’t have to make the downright brutal, gut-wrenching cuts we had to make in other years,” he said.

And all of this will take place in the wake of a recent Department of Community Affairs report that showed an overall tax increase of 4.1 percent in 2010 from 2009 for New Jerseyans. The increase was the largest since a 7.3 percent leap in 2007.

Democrats pounced on that report as proof Christie’s policies aren’t working, while Republicans used it as further evidence for adoption of all of the administration’s “tool-kit” bills.

Department summaries of proposed fiscal 2012 budget appropriations, and comparison with current fiscal year adjusted appropriation:

Legislature: $75.5 million, a decrease of $1.8 million, or 2.4 percent

Agriculture: $19.6 million, decrease of $125,000, .6 percent

Banking and Insurance: $63 million, increase of $1.7 million, 2.7 percent

Children and Families: $1.06 billion, decrease of 461,000, less than .1 percent

Community Affairs: $724.9 million, decrease of $11.7 million, 1.6 percent

Corrections: $1.09 billion, decrease of $20.8 million, 1.9 percent

Education: $10.26 billion, decrease of $421.4 million, 3.9 percent

Environmental Protection: $353.7 million, decrease of $38.6 million, 9.8 percent

Health and Senior Services: $1.26 billion, decrease of $9.1 million, .7 percent

Human Services: $5.3 billion, increase of $456 million, 9.4 percent

Labor and Workforce Development: $150.7 million, increase of $7.8 million, 5.5 percent

Law and Public Safety: $555.4 million, decrease of $5 million, .9 percent

Military and Veterans Affairs: $93.3 million, decrease of $1.5 million

State: $63.4 million, increase of $6.9 million, 12 percent (This excludes Higher Education and State Library)

Transportation: $1.42 billion, increase of $139 million, 10.8 percent (This increase is due mostly to $164.6 million increase for direct property tax relief Grants-in-Aid program and a $108.4 million  increase in the portion of general obligation debt service.)

Treasury: $2 billion, increase of $225.5 million, 12.7 percent

These figures do not include certain categories, such as  various commissions and interdepartmental accounts.

Lawmakers prep for hard-core work of writing budget