New Jersey Democrats balk at Christie's budget proposals

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Posted: Feb 25, 2015 1:43 AM
New Jersey Democrats balk at Christie's budget proposals

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie's $33.8 billion budget won't go anywhere in the Legislature without a green light from Democratic leaders, and so far their reaction amounts to more of a yellow caution light.

At its heart, Christie proposed overhauling the public pension system and at the same time lowering the state's payment to those funds. That's a hard proposal for Democrats to embrace after they sought to raise taxes last year to pay for higher contributions to the funds, and particularly after a Superior Court judge this week ruled in favor of unions seeking to recoup that money.

Senate President Steve Sweeney was perhaps the harshest on Christie's ideas.

"There's no plan here. The plan is, 'I give up,'" Sweeney said after the governor's budget address on Tuesday.

What comes next is the start of a months-long process leading up to the end of the June 30 fiscal year. Lawmakers will soon review the governor's actual budget figures and then begin to hold hearings on the proposals.

Don't expect the Democratic-controlled Legislature to heed the governor's proposals, though. Many said it was too early to say exactly how they might alter Christie's proposals; they're likely to take a red pen to the budget.

"It's gonna take an extreme makeover that's for sure," said Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak.

Christie can exercise his line-item veto. That means that while lawmakers might gut his proposals, he has leverage over theirs as well.

Here's a closer look at the governor's proposals and where Democrats stand on them:

PENSIONS

Christie's proposal: Christie proposed paying $1.3 billion into the state's public sector pension system. The administration says the figure is the highest in state history, though it's actually below the $2.25 billion the governor had agreed to pay before state receipts fell short in 2014. He coupled that proposed payment with a broad plan to overhaul the current system, including freezing current pension funds, transferring control to unions and passing a constitutional amendment to dedicate funds.

What Democrats think: Sweeney stopped short of saying the deal was dead on arrival but said the governor needs to show a "good faith effort" to fund the pensions at the levels he agreed to in 2011. Sweeney did not say specifically what taxes he would propose raising but cited the Democrats' 2014 budget, which raised taxes on millionaires and businesses, as a way to pay for the funds.

SCHOOL AID

Christie's proposal: Total aid to schools will go up slightly from about $12 billion to nearly $13 billion, with the lion's share of increased funding coming in the form of a $400 million injection into the teachers' pension fun and an additional $45 million to health care for retirees.

What Democrats think: On balance, Democrats want to see more money spent on aid to schools, but their plans on just how to spend that money are murky. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said too many schools are underfunded, and Democrats have had an ongoing dispute with the governor's hand-picked Newark schools superintendent, whose One Newark Plan has riled some parents in the state's largest school district and also resulted in calls among Democrats for her resignation.

TRANSPORTATION

Christie's proposal: Christie did not address the state's deeply debt-laden, $1.6 billion trust fund. But Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said the 2016 budget will cash out authorized but unused bonds worth about $600 million to pay for the troubled fund. The issue facing lawmakers and Christie is that on July 1, the fund will run out of borrowing authority to continue capital programs. Using the bonds, then, amounts to taking on more debt to pay for capital projects.

What Democrats think: Democrats said they were disappointed the governor did not address the fund in his speech, but stopped short of saying the oversight is a sign that negotiations over how to pay for the fund have stopped. Prieto said those conversations are ongoing. Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski said he plans to hold a hearing on his bill, which raises the gas tax by about 25-cents per gallon, as a way to spur debate and reach a solution on how to pay for infrastructure.