As Gov. Chris Christie prepares his first budget address for Tuesday, local legislators are considering how — or whether — they can protect their favorite programs in the face of billions of dollars in promised spending cuts.
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, says he has chosen to hold back any criticism until he sees the budget.
“I wish I could tell people that there are not going to be cuts to things they care about,” he said Thursday between votes on the Senate floor. But with the state facing a budget hole of $11 billion, “I can’t say that. That’s the way it is,” he said.
But other lawmakers have identified what they will fight for. The local priorities are not just familiar southern New Jersey concerns such as agriculture, casino reinvestment and tourism. Charity care for the poor at area hospitals, sustaining the Urban Enterprise Zone program and a financial commitment to green energy also top their lists.
Tuesday’s speech will provide the most concrete evidence yet about how the new governor will handle a budget crisis that could define his administration. As he grapples with continuing fallout from the 2008-09 economic crisis, Christie has committed to balancing the state budget while keeping his campaign pledge not to raise taxes. But a revenue shortfall of $11 billion amounts to more than a third of last year’s budget total, $29 billion.
“I know that the things I’m going to propose next week are going to anger some people,” Christie said Tuesday in front of a crowd in Haddon Heights, Camden County. “But what I’ll tell you is it’s going to be fair. They’re going to cut against everybody.
“We have no way to make up this money unless everybody leaves the corners of the room, protecting their own little piece of turf,” he added.
Economists have predicted Christie will aim for one of the biggest budget reductions ever made in the state’s operating cost.
Republicans, in particular, who are of the governor’s party, say they know his decisions may tread on programs close to home.
“We’ve been very concerned in recent weeks about the loss of charity care at hospitals,” said Vincent Polistina, one of the two Republican assemblymen from Atlantic County. “When you’re cutting into that, you’re hurting people who have no other form of health care, and we don’t want to see that go.”
In contrast to others from his party, Polistina also said he wants to see aid to municipalities and school districts remain steady.
Republicans such as Assemblyman Joe Malone, R-Burlington, Monmouth, Ocean, Mercer, have said in recent weeks that school aid will have to be reduced from its current-year level of $7.5 billion. Christie and his education commissioner, Bret Schundler, said Feb. 16 they are aiming to keep school aid flat but would not rule out cuts of up to 15 percent. Polistina said he feels differently.
“We would like to see it not rise, but also not get taken away, just because we know that municipalities and districts are facing unbelievably difficult decisions this year,” he said. “We don’t want to see them have to have tax increases.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, pointed to two examples of related programs that might suffer cuts.
“Green energy — that’s one area where we really sparkle in this state,” he said. From a solar plant planned for Millville to wind farms planned off Cape May, Van Drew said the area had benefited from “the kind of programs that bring many dollars in for every dollar invested.”
He drew attention to the economic-development incentives southern counties have used to boost those goals.
“The urban enterprise zones have been huge, in one part of my district,” he said, referring to the Vineland-Millville UEZ. Despite Christie freezing UEZ funds statewide, and despite agreeing the overall program could be improved, he said of his local UEZ, “That has been one of the most functional, powerful and most effective examples in the state.
“And I’ll tell you right now, without that program, those areas are back in the dark ages,” he added.
The solar plant proposed for Millville, he said, depended on UEZ sales-tax breaks to become reality.
Whelan said in general that he wished education and higher education would be left intact. He said he is preparing to enter a bare-knuckle process to save what he can.
Seeing cuts that “unequally target departments or regions in southern New Jersey,” he said he would register his concerns with the heads of the Senate and Assembly budget committees, who must draft laws reflecting the governor’s budget proposal.
Behind the scenes, Polistina agreed, informal negotiations could become a “bear fight.”
While some argued for cautious lobbying to save local services, Assemblyman Nelson Albano, D-Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, felt there wasn’t time.
“I feel I have to stand up not just for my residents in the district but the people of New Jersey,” he said.
Cuts to senior services, he said, are “unacceptable.”
Municipal aid cuts, he said, “would lead to layoffs in public safety, as we’ve seen in three towns already.” Galloway and Stafford townships and Atlantic City are among New Jersey towns that have proposed cuts to local police staff.
And on top of services for the elderly, the state Department of Human Services had responsibility for the very young and disabled, he said.
Above all, he said, he paid attention to the phrase used around Trenton to mean uncut programs.
“Held harmless, they say. What does that mean, except protecting our most vulnerable? Which in our region can mean a large segment of the population,” he said.
Asked Thursday whether he would preview cuts or savings his budget might contain, Christie said he wanted to build up to a big revelation on Tuesday, rather than leak advance details.
“If I told you that, that would be one other thing that you wouldn’t have an incentive to come on Tuesday,” he said. “I do much better in front of big crowds. So I want the crowd to be as big as it possibly can be.”
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