Gov. Chris Christie's budget address this week was as much campaign speech as financial document. That's only natural for a governor running for re-election.
The most welcome news was that the state will expand its Medicaid program, taking advantage of federal funds available under Obamacare to provide health insurance for tens of thousands of low-income residents.
This should save the state $227 million in the fiscal year that begins in July. In an apparent effort to keep his conservative bona fides burnished for the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, the governor made it clear he was agreeing to the expansion under protest, recognizing it as fiscally smart, but emphasizing, "I am no fan of the Affordable Care Act."
Christie's efforts to position himself as a pragmatist and as someone who can forge bipartisan cooperation on important issues carry the clear suggestion that this would not be a bad formula for his party to follow as it tries to become more competitive in national elections.
Aside from a few jabs at the spending practices of "the Corzine years," Christie's toughest political salvo was a shot at Democrats for resisting the misguided and unaffordable tax cut he proposed last year. But he did not include a tax cut proposal in his new budget, saying "I am content to let the voters decide this in November."
To close a deficit in the current fiscal year, Christie will permanently shift property tax rebate payments from May to August, pushing the $392 million expense into next year's budget.
The nearly $32.9 billion fiscal year 2014 budget contains the largest payment the state has ever made to its workers' pension fund, $1.67 billion. This payment, the first of increasing annual installments over seven years required by the 2011 pension overhaul, is an important step toward setting the pension fund on solid fiscal ground.
Also included is a $40 million fund to cover unreimbursed costs of rebuilding the shore after Hurricane Sandy.
The spending plan continues a New Jersey tradition of using one-shot tricks and overly optimistic projections to "balance" the budget.
The budget imagines revenue growth of 4.9 percent, well below the overly optimistic projections of last year, but it is counting on the casino revenue fund to grow by an unrealistic $200 million, including an unlikely bonanza from Internet gambling, which is a long way from being implemented.
Christie's budget once again raids Clean Energy money, transferring $150 million from funds intended to develop energy efficiency programs.
He also included a controversial proposal to create a $2 million pilot school-voucher program, which some see as an end run around the Legislature.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers will argue about this and other budget issues in the months ahead.
But, as an opening proposal in that debate, Christie's budget, while containing the usual measure of wishful thinking, makes some intelligent choices and - by not ducking the pension payment - a refreshing move toward fiscal responsibility.