No sooner will Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers settle one debate than they will they start another in Trenton on Tuesday.
About an hour after members of the Legislature are to vote on passage of a landmark Internet gambling bill that the governor has said he will sign, Christie will deliver an annual budget address expected to set off another contentious battle. This time, it will be over his proposed budget for fiscal year 2014.
“Tomorrow will just be the beginning of the discussion,” Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Cumberland, Gloucester, Salem, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said.
The governor and his staff said little Monday about what specific recommendations he will make in his address, saying only that he will reiterate his commitment to Hurricane Sandy rebuilding efforts and outline the “guiding principles” behind his budget plan.
“I expect a very upbeat tone from him,“ Burzichelli said. “He’ll talk in broad terms and big numbers.”
Some Democrats already have expressed concerns about the state’s fiscal health, citing reports from the state Treasury Department last week, which said that while year-to-date revenue collection for this fiscal year was about 4 percent higher than during the same period last year, it was still about $350 million short of projections.
Casino revenues in particular have been well short of expectations — by about $44 million, or 27 percent less than projections — in part due to Sandy and continued pressure from casinos in neighboring states.
The current year’s budget shortfall would be in addition to other expenses expected to come in 2014, including contributions to the public pension system.
At the same time, being short by $350 million to $450 million is less than some Democrats had been projecting, and manageable without overly drastic cuts, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said.
“It’s definitely doable,” he said.
Playing a role in the state’s budget battle will be federal sequestration issues, which if it succeeds in triggering across-the-board automatic cuts by the federal government will leave too big of a hole for New Jersey to plug, Van Drew and other lawmakers said. In particular, sequestration would be devastating if it threatened the $60 billion federal Sandy relief package the Northeast expects.
“We’re not going to be able to replace federal money,” Burzichelli said.
Christie likely will use his address to lambast members of Congress on sequestration but likely will have no choice but to assume a compromise will eventually be reached, lawmakers said.
“He has to assume that it’s not going to happen,” Van Drew said of sequestration. “To assume it is going to happen is to present a budget that is so dire.”
Supporters said they expect the governor to also touch on many of the same topics he brought up during his State of the State address last month, such as the addition of nearly 75,000 private-sector jobs and reform measures.
The governor has a track record of balanced budgets that makes his proposals credible, said Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, said.
“The governor will talk about reforms we have made and the advances we’ve made,” he said. “The governor has handed us three responsible budgets with no tax increases and no fee increases.”
Republicans are expected to receive a preview of the governor’s address on Tuesday morning when they will caucus with each other.
Originally members of both parties were to gather for a joint session to hear the budget address in the early afternoon, but leaders in the Senate and Assembly revised the schedule to include a voting session about an hour prior to the governor’s address.
At that time, lawmakers in both houses are expected to concur with the changes Christie wants made to the Internet gambling legislation, clearing the way for the bill to be signed into law.
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