TRENTON — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a $32.5 billion state budget on Monday, but not before using his executive powers to veto two tax increases passed by lawmakers and cut back the state's contribution to pension funds for public workers.
The signing put a budget in place for Tuesday's start of the fiscal year and averted any chance of a government shutdown, something that never seemed to be a serious threat this year.
Christie signed the budget in private and did not take reporters' questions about it. His office announced the signing just before 6 p.m.
"Rather than enacting responsible policies that will encourage and allow New Jersey's economy and revenues to grow, the Legislature appears to be intent on inhibiting economic growth with crushing taxes," Christie said in his signing statement.
Not surprisingly, the budget fallout fell along party lines, with Christie saying more taxes would be irresponsible and Democrats accusing him of favoring the rich. State Senate President Steve Sweeney said lawmakers passed a "fiscally responsible plan."
"The governor, however, has decided to continue protecting the state's wealthiest at the expense of the middle class and working poor," he said in a statement. "His belief in punishing the middle class is one of the reasons New Jersey's economy continues to lag behind that of our neighbors and the nation, while working people suffer the brunt of the consequences."
In addition to the pension funding cut and eliminating tax hikes, Christie took his veto pen to several other measures.
In what's become an annual action, he crossed out $7.5 million in funding for family planning services, saying that the state cannot afford it.
He also trimmed about $3 million in library aid, $3 million for charter schools, cut $3.5 million that lawmakers wanted to promote Medicaid and took out a pledge to add 17 new state-funded jobs at Rowan University's School of Osteopathic Medicine.
There were some changes that the Legislature made that Christie did not have the power to undo. Among them was his proposal to impose a new tax on electronic cigarettes, which had been scrapped by lawmakers.
The budget drama heightened in April after a surprise shortfall for fiscal 2014 and caused lowered revenue projections for fiscal 2015.
Christie called for making up most of the gap — $2.75 billion over the two fiscal years — by reducing pension payments. He says that retirees will get what they have due in the short term, and he wants to overhaul the system further in the long term, arguing that growing obligations under a 2010 deal to stabilize the depleted funds are too costly for taxpayers.
The Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature had a different approach to the budget crunch, calling to make up much of it by raising taxes on personal income over $1 million and imposing a 15 percent surcharge on a corporate tax.
The Legislature adopted its version with the expectation of seeing Christie impose his will through vetoes of tax bills and line-item vetoes of the budget bill.
Democrats do not have enough lawmakers to override a veto without Republicans' help.
A Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll released Monday showed that voters aren't paying much attention to the current pension funding conundrum. But taxing wealthy individuals more was far more popular than raising business taxes.
Also, three-fifths of registered voters believe pension costs are "out of control," and three-fifths of that group blame the Legislature. The telephone poll of 800 randomly selected registered voters was conducted June 25 to 29 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The fight over pensions isn't likely to be ended by the budget signing. It's likely headed back to court.
A judge ruled last week that the state has a contractual obligation to fund pensions fully but that Christie's earlier cuts were permissible because of a surprise budget crisis. The unions' suit also asked for fully funded pensions for fiscal 2015, but no judge has addressed that yet because the budget had not been signed. Union officials hope that Christie will not be allowed to slice contributions again in the coming year.
A new budget generally brings some changes to the way the state operates. One passed by lawmakers this year is a one-year suspension in tax credits awarded through the Business Employee Incentive Program, which rewards firms for bringing jobs to the state. The measure is expected to save $175 million from one of a handful of similarly purposed programs.
About 500 companies have benefited from it the program over the years. But the awards were phased out last year and replaced with new incentives. Lawmakers recently have criticized Christie for doing so much for business. But they did not suspend any incentives under the packages they have adopted since last year.