Assembly lawmakers spar over internet gaming, tax rebates

TRENTON – Just how much revenue the state will see in internet gaming’s first year became a point of contention between Assembly Budget Committee members and the Treasury Department on Tuesday.

The fiscal year 2014 budget proposes $180 million in anticipated revenue but the Office of Legislative Services has estimated that $30 million is a more likely figure.

That difference led to a give-and-take between Democratic and Republican Budget Committee members over the proposed FY 14 $32.9 billion budget.

Democratic members, including Gary Schaer, Vincent Prieto and John Burzichelli, pressed Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff over how the executive branch arrived at the $180 million figure.

The Treasurer said a Wells Fargo report was used, but told lawmakers it was not the only source relied upon.  He said experts in gaming oversight were consulted as well, but declined to share all of the sources and/or reports the administration relied upon.

“We’re not going to be in the business of opening up all of our estimates.  That is something that should remain within the Executive functions,” he said.

Prieto and Schaer both indicated that absent access to all pertinent data, it is difficult to craft a budget.

Sidamon-Eristoff, having said that reasonable people can agree to disagree, said in response to repeated questions and comments on the issue that Treasury saw no reason at this time to revisit or revise that $180 million figure.

Schaer at one point emphasized the importance of the disagreement, saying that the estimated FY 14 surplus is $301 million, and since the expected $180 million in internet gaming revenue would be more than half of that, it has “significant  potential ramifications.”

He said also that he did not view Treasury’s responses as being given in a sense of cooperation.

Sidamon-Eristoff eventually responded that if the Legislators don’t trust the administration’s revenue estimates there is a solution.

“I would urge the Legislature not to adopt a budget with revenues they consider at risk,’’ he said. “Strike a budget and then we’ll see where the chips fall.”

GOP Assemblyman Jay Webber seconded that idea.

He said the Treasurer has the prerogative to do his own analysis and keep some of that material private. 

“If you don’t trust the numbers,’’ Webber said to his Democratic colleagues, “pass a budget that comes in a little lower.  You won’t get any disagreement from this side of the aisle.”

That tied in with earlier questions asked about the Homestead Property Tax rebate, which is not in the fiscal year 2013 budget.

Burzichelli and Prieto both recited figures showing there were 1.8 million eligible recipients in fiscal year 2010, 997,000 in FY 11, 935,000 in FY 12, and there would have been 822,000 in FY 13 at an estimated $400 million in relief.

Webber said that if the Democrats are serious about restoring the tax rebates earlier than scheduled he’d be willing to stay well into the night to find $345 million in budget cuts to help restore the relief.

And Republican Declan O’Scanlon said that under Democratic administrations rebate eligibility numbers were reduced as well. “It’s a shell game, to some extent, played by administration after administration,’’ he said.

“No sooner did we make this (rebate) promise to people than we began to chip away.”

He said that the Christie administration, faced with a “horrific economic downturn,’’ eventually enacted historic pension/benefit and other reforms that exceed $1.2 billion in savings to taxpayers.

Prieto pointed out that the administration does not get all of the credit for the pension/benefit reforms. “It was bipartisan,’’ he said. “Give credit where credit is due.’’

And Burzichelli said the rebates are constitutionally required. “It is the only effective program we have to give people property tax relief. The fact that it doesn’t get funded on a regular basis sends a message to the people that they come second.”

Assembly lawmakers spar over internet gaming, tax rebates