AP News

Few jabs at Gov. Christie's $32.9B budget


TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Advocates for public education, the working poor and the environment criticized Gov. Chris Christie's spending priorities during the first public hearing on his $32.9 billion proposed budget, while the plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1 was greeted Tuesday with general satisfaction overall.

Susan Cauldwell of Save Our Schools NJ told the Senate Budget Committee that the budget Christie presented last week shortchanges education by more than $1 billion. While the budget proposes a modest increase in K-12 education and adds money for school choice and charter schools, Cauldwell said it ignores the state's own school funding formula for the fifth straight year.

"If this budget is enacted, our state's excellent public school system would have been underfunded by more than $4.8 billion since fiscal year 2010," Cauldwell told the panel. "This persistent underfunding not only shortchanges our' children's future, it also places an increased burden on local communities in the form of higher property taxes and fees."

New Jersey Citizen Action, a citizen advocacy group, took issue with the fact that the governor's budget does not include a provision to restore a 5 percent cut to a tax credit for the working poor. Christie trimmed the Earned Income Tax Credit but later proposed restoring it in a deal Democrats rejected. The cut means about $300 a year in the pockets of thousands of low-income wage earners.

Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club said Christie's persistent diversion of funds meant to promote purchases of energy efficient appliances and furnaces amounts to "a hidden tax" on residents. Christie's budget proposes tapping the fund for $152 million. The governor took $89 million from the fund this year and $210 million the year before. He said the fund, which provides grants to residents who purchase "green" products, could help those trying to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.

Earlier, mental health advocates praised the budget for expanding Medicaid, adding more than $4 million for drug courts, and expanding Familycare, which provides affordable health insurance to low-income residents. Mary Coogan, a lawyer with Advocated for Children of New Jersey, said the governor's $6.4 million increased investment in Familycare has helped reduce the number of uninsured children to around 5 percent.

Phil Lubitz of the National Alliance of Mental Illness also praised the increases, but he cautioned that the state's mental health system is still significantly underfunded and cannot handle additional demands. Thousands of disabled people remain on wait lists for daycare, jobs or residential placement.

East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov, the first to testify, told the panel that municipalities are facing a financial squeeze as the costs of running their towns are rising at rates higher than the 2 percent cap.

Mironov, who serves as president of the League of Municipalities, said costs for the state health insurance plan are going up 9.2 percent in the year ahead, and other government-imposed fees are also set to rise.

Christie's budget proposes keeping aid to towns at the same level as this year, and mayors breathed a sigh of relief that they wouldn't see cuts.

Mironov renewed her plea for a portion of the $700 million or so utilities pay each year to locate equipment and infrastructure on municipal land be returned to the towns.

As of now, the energy fees go into the state's general budget fund.

Republicans and Democrats support a plan to phase in a return of the money to the towns, but Republicans are waiting for guidance from the Christie administration as to when and how the state can afford it.


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