WEEKLY ROUNDUP – In their last stand before the end of the fiscal year, Democrats in the Statehouse made passionate pleas, defended their $30.6 billion spending plan, and passed the measure in both the Senate and the Assembly.
“This budget says New Jersey’s priorities are its working families, its seniors, its kids and those who are working hard to not be pushed off the margins of society,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-36) of Wood-Ridge said about the Democrats’ budget Monday.
But it was more than $1 billion higher than the one proposed by Gov. Chris Christie, so you know how this story ended. Ultimately, the Democrats’ efforts fell short, despite having healthy majorities in the Assembly and the Senate.
Just a week after the passage of a controversial pension and health benefits reform package (formally signed on Tuesday amid much pomp and circumstance) that will require the state’s 500,000 public workers to make larger contributions, Gov. Chris Christie scored another win by getting the budget he wanted – a financial document that calls for deep cuts in safety-net programs, seeks changes to eligibility requirements for Medicaid and other health insurance programs for poor people, and is devoid of the millionaire’s surtax that would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues.
All of the large spending increases or restorations the Democrats sought – suburban school aid, the senior tax freeze program, women’s health/family planning services, Urban Enterprise Zones, more police officers in cities – were all marked out with a red Sharpie.
If there was one area that saw an uptick in the $29.7 billion budget that Christie signed on Thursday, it is school funding. Compared to the original figures from February, non-Abbot school districts will see $150 million more in state aid. The governor was also forced to fork over an additional $450 million for at-risk, former Abbott school districts in order to fulfill a Supreme Court order.
And then it was done
After more than a week of demonstrations by public workers and contentious debate on the floors of the Senate and Assembly earlier in June, Gov. Christie signed the overhaul of pension and health benefits Tuesday at the War Memorial.
Although he hailed the bill as a bipartisan success that he said will save about $130 billion over 30 years, the Communications Workers of America vowed to remember come election time those who stood with them and those who did not, and Christie even said he expected a lawsuit at some point.
The camera blinked
The New Jersey Network signed off at midnight Thursday after 40 years due to a controversial deal that ended the state’s support of public television. A resolution disapproving the state-negotiated contract with its successor, WNET, failed to garner enough support in the state Senate.
After the vote, the network’s longtime Statehouse reporter, Michael Aron, said that covering the demise of his own network was “perverse.”
Charters and choice
In the midst of the budget drama, a group of charter school advocates took to the Statehouse to express opposition against a group of bills that they believe would hinder the progress of the alternative education movement.
The most controversial of the bills was probably A3852, which would give residents the opportunity to decide via referendum whether they want a charter school established in their communities. Underscoring how this issue fractures along party, religious and social lines, the bill was approved by the Assembly 47-17, but had a whopping 14 abstentions.
Speaking of fracturing
The Assembly approved a bill in opposition to the procedure of fracturing, or fracking, to drill through rocks to extract natural gas.
Opponents cited instances such as one in June 2010, in Clearfield County, Pa., in which they say the procedure caused an explosion that contaminated water.