TRENTON – In his past two budget addresses, Gov. Chris Christie struck a sobering but still optimistic tone, saying he wanted to make taxpayers part of a historic fight to bring the state back to solvency from its long-standing financial morass.
He called for “shared sacrifice” in his first budget address, cutting state aid for school districts, and rolled back a big chunk of the property tax rebates that had long been a part of the state fiscal formula. He replaced them with a direct credit program that was only a fraction of what taxpayers were previously receiving.
In his second budget address, he said a “new normal” mindset would be in place under the Golden Dome, with state departments adopting a zero-based and performance-based budget philosophy in which they should not assume automatic annual increases were a given. He called for $200 million in business tax cuts, and he has consistently put a stop to Democrats’ attempts to reinstate the millionaire’s tax.
But there were some benefits for working-class households and municipalities, as well. Christie proposed increasing state aid to all school districts by $250 million and called for doubling the tax rebates for income-eligible senior citizens and middle-class families, under the condition the Legislature would agree to reform health insurance and pension systems.
On health insurance reform, it would only be a couple of months later that Christie, along with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) of West Deptford, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34) of East Orange, accomplished that goal. The reforms ideally will help slow down the ever-growing deficits in pension and health benefits, which last year were running at $54 billion and $67 billion, respectively. The governor also called for making a half-billion-dollar payment to the pension funds, a practice that had been ignored by his recent predecessors.
He also increased Charity Care to pay for emergency room visits for poor people by $20 million, and kept in place a payment program for prescription drugs. But he also proposed reforming the state’s share of Medicaid, seeking a global waiver of $300 million. And cities would fall under the spotlight as a battle over $149 million in Transitional Aid – and oversight of the spending – played out during much of last year.
Lawmakers from both parties said on President’s Day afternoon they hadn’t received any specifics of Christie’s Tuesday’s budget address. The tone that Christie set last year was New Jersey as an agent of change, an example that he says is being replicated by other states. He’s already assumed the worst days are becoming a thing of the past, with New Jersey being on the “comeback,” as his town hall banners clearly state.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, (R-21), of Westfield, said that Christie will probably call for a smaller government and the importance of passing the three-year, 10 percent, across-the-board, income tax cut proposal, which many Democrats slammed. The $29.4 billion budget Christie proposed last year was smaller than fiscal year 2011’s was.
“I think he’s proved you can run a smaller government,” Bramnick said. “It’s part of what he’s doing.”
Bramnick said he’s been nothing short of impressed by Christie, and his ability to easily gain attention with his straight-shooting candor.
Across the aisle there is a different sentiment. Assemblyman John Burzichelli, (D-3), of Paulsboro, said that while there’s little doubt the governor will give a good speech, he said “the devil is in the details.” He and party members would like to see a fairer distribution of state funds for public education and more property tax relief for middle-class residents.
He said he still has questions on the Medicaid waiver, and whether all the savings they anticipated will actually materialize.
At a January town hall meeting in Voorhees, Christie told curious onlookers that “a lot of districts will see increased aid …We’re going to do it in a coordinated way.” He said this in response to a criticism from Democrats who questioned how he could do that and provide the income tax cut. However, Christie dismissed the charge as a “false choice.”
In that same meeting, he said, “There’s a lot of things we can do to reduce the size of government,” although he didn’t give specifics.
In last year’s proposed budget, the Department of Environmental Protection faced the biggest cuts, with a 0 percent reduction from Fiscal Year 2011. In that same budget proposal, several departments saw increases compared to the 2011 Fiscal Year budget – Department of Banking and Insurance (2.7 percent), Human Services (9.4 percent), Department of Labor (+5.5 percent), Department of State (+12.1 percent), Department of Transportation (+10.8 percent), and the Treasury Department (12.7 percent).