TRENTON — Some New Jersey Democratic lawmakers tried to put up a roadblock Thursday to passing a state budget, even as their colleagues were advancing a list of spending additions to the $32 billion plan.
In an 8-5 vote, the state Senate’s budget committee passed the plan. It’s expected to be considered by the whole Senate next week.
Meanwhile, a group of nine Assembly Democrats said they will withhold their votes on the state budget unless a contentious plan to reconfigure New Jersey’s higher education system is delayed.
It’s not clear how it will turn out. The Assembly budget committee, which had planned a hearing on the budget for Thursday night, instead decided to leave it until Friday morning.
If it works, the gambit could either push back a decision on how to align Rutgers and Rowan universities and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey or force the Democratic majority to search for at least two Republicans to support their budget plans. There are 48 Democrats in the Assembly, where a bill needs 41 votes to pass.
Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature want to return $66 million in revenue from utility taxes to municipalities, increase a tax credit for the working poor, bump up state aid to nursing homes and add $7 million to pay for women’s health services.
They are also trying to reinstate a tax on income over $1 million to pay for property tax breaks for many homeowners. Under their plan, senior-citizen and disabled homeowners with incomes less than $250,000 and other homeowners with incomes under $100,000 would benefit.
The extra spending boosts favored interests and principles of Democrats and likely sets up a series of battles with Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who has vetoed some of the same proposals in the past.
In a statement Thursday evening, Christie blasted Democratic lawmakers for not getting the budget adopted — invoking the name of Jon Corzine, the Democratic governor Christie unseated three years ago.
“After months of promising to deliver critical tax relief to the people of New Jersey, Corzine Democrats today proved it’s just more of the same when it comes to their addiction to raising taxes and holding tax relief hostage,” Christie said.
It’s all part of the early-summer rite of adopting a state budget. The state constitution requires that be completed by close of business on June 30.
This year, there’s broad agreement on most of the $32 billion spending plan, but plenty of disputes around the margins.
Christie’s plan relies on projections that revenue will grow by 7.3 percent over the next year, enough for $183 million on the first phase of a tax cut.
Democratic leaders say the governor’s estimates are too optimistic, and that the money to pay for tax cuts should be held in escrow until it’s clear the state can afford them.
“That’s a really bad idea. Business likes certainties, they don’t like maybes,” said Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, who said he did not believe Christie would be willing to wait to cut taxes “He doesn’t have the patience for that kind of stuff. He wants a tax cut now.”
Despite the expected objections from the governor, the Senate’s budget committee passed its version of the spending plan on a party-line vote.
Republicans said waiting for a final decision on a tax cut was not needed.
“I think this budget makes a lot of people happy,” said Republican Sen. Joe Pennacchio, “but it doesn’t make the taxpayers happy,”
And Democrats said the Republicans were misguided to vote against a budget that the majority party sees as a compromise. “I’m a little perplexed with the ‘no’ votes, especially since this vote is virtually identical to the governor’s budget,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, the budget committee chairman.
In legislative hearings earlier Thursday, the argument was over other spending.
The Assembly’s budget committee advanced a bill to allow the state to borrow up to $3.5 billion over the next four years to help pay for transportation costs that could come in at about $1.2 billion per year. The Senate budget committee has already moved ahead with an identical bill.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Essex, Morris, Passaic, objected, saying he believes it could be unconstitutional to borrow the money without putting the issue to voters. Several of the Democrats who voted for the measure did so despite misgivings that the state would be borrowing too much and that there was not a stable long-term funding source to pay for it.
Some advocates said the solution is to raise the state’s gas tax — but that debate was left for the future.
Meanwhile, Democratic-controlled budget committees in both houses approved legislation to return $66 million next year from an energy tax to municipalities. The state has been taking a cut of the receipts of the charges paid for utilities to locate power lines and other infrastructure in the towns. Mayors from both parties told lawmakers at hearings that they could use the money to help balance their budgets — or even offer property tax cuts. All the Republicans on the budget committees in both houses voted against the bill, saying the Democratic sponsors do not have a way to pay for it.
Some Republicans also predicted a Christie veto of that measure.