News Column

New Jersey Lawmakers Quietly Approve a $32.9 Billion Budget

June 25, 2013

With only muted dissent, the New Jersey Legislature gave final approval to a $32.9 billion budget Monday that is slightly larger than last year's, contains no new taxes or layoffs, and tracks closely with the fiscal plan laid out by Gov. Christie in February.

The Senate passed the budget bill by a 29-11 vote and was followed a short time later by the Assembly, which passed the measure, 52-25.

The bill, for the budget year that begins Monday, was the result of talks between Democratic Assembly and Senate leaders and the governor's office. Although the budget focuses mostly on the Christie administration's spending priorities, it includes a handful of items for legislative Democrats, including additional money for county colleges and nursing home operators, and a $30 million appropriation to help underwrite the merger of the state School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford into Rowan University, effective Monday.

"It was a negotiated process with both houses and the administration," said Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen). "Nobody on either side should be declaring victory."

Yet some discord was apparent during floor debates, with liberal Democrats declaring that the state's disadvantaged had been shortchanged and conservative Republicans criticizing what they said were inordinate amounts of taxpayer money flowing to cities.

"I think this budget spends too much and we need a more equitable distribution of school aid," said Sen. Michael Doherty (R., Warren), who voted against the budget. Doherty said it was unacceptable that urban school districts receive $10,000 per pupil or more in aid each year -- Asbury Park received $25,000 -- while suburban districts such as Bridgewater Township, which he represents, got only $1,000 per pupil.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), who also voted against the budget, said it did nothing to lessen homeowners' property-tax burden. She also criticized the spending plan for failing to fund a women's health initiative and for rejecting a proposal to lighten low-income workers' tax burden.

The budget calls for reducing direct appropriations to the Department of Environmental Protection from $214 million to $211 million, a decline of about 1.5 percent. Funded jobs at the DEP, about 2,812, will remain the same. But with a state hiring freeze in effect, the numbers likely will drop.

The budget also includes $1 billion in additional federal aid to pay for the health care of low- and moderate-income people under the Affordable Care Act, and a $1.6 billion payment for public employee pensions, part of a multiyear effort to restore the state pension fund to fiscal health.

As part of the Medicaid expansion, the Senate gave final passage Monday to legislation that would expand eligibility for Medicaid to people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, which would expand Medicaid rolls in New Jersey by more than 200,000 people.

The budget adopted Monday also includes an $83 million increase in funding for care of developmentally disabled people in state institutions and community homes.

Under a lawsuit settlement reached in February, the state is committed to moving about 600 residents of state institutions into community homes by 2017. The state also has agreed to accelerate placement of developmentally disabled people currently at home with parents or other caretakers into group homes.

The Senate debate on the bill lasted about 45 minutes; the Assembly debate was concluded in less than 10.

"This budget does not accomplish all that we had hoped, but by negotiating with the administration we were able to provide much needed funding in areas critical to New Jersey seniors and our schools," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). "While we have been able to work out a bipartisan budget in a timely manner, we must still keep a close eye on the state's fiscal footing in the weeks and months ahead."

Source: (c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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