Christie Budget Calls For Sacrifice

Courier-Post — Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Associated Press

CAMDEN — New Jersey's days as a place where the government is unusually generous to the needy may be numbered as a new governor pushes wide-ranging spending cuts to solve a deep budget crisis.

Gov. Chris Christie is set to unveil his first spending plan today after months of preaching shared sacrifice. From what he's done so far, it's clear that applies to lower-income people, too, in a state that's among the most generous in the nation when it comes to unemployment benefits and taxpayer-funded health care for the working poor.

Already, he has cut the state's mass-transit subsidy and stopped enrolling some lower-income adults in a subsidized health insurance program. He's also proposed reducing weekly unemployment checks and, even before he was sworn in, hinted that food banks could see their state aid cut and told hospitals their reimbursements for treating the indigent will be cut in June.

Those savings still carry a cost: One man doesn't know how a relative will pay for dialysis, and a nurse says a bus fare increase will mean an end to her occasional lunches out.

Advocates for the poor are complaining Christie isn't being fair.

What particularly rankles some critics is that Christie is planning to eliminate a higher income tax for families who make over $400,000. "We should not cut taxes for rich folks at the same time we're cutting funding for food banks," said Ev Liebman, project manager for the watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action.

A day before Christie was to deliver his first budget address, Democrats were also on the attack, saying his effort to balance the books will hurt the middle class.

Christie will deliver his message to a joint session of the Legislature at 1 p.m. today, when he will outline his $29.3 billion budget.

When federal stimulus money is taken into account, Christie's budget represents a cut of $3 billion, or 9 percent, from the 2009-10 budget passed by the Legislature under Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine. New Jersey is getting $1.3 billion less in stimulus money than last year.

Lawmakers and those familiar with the budget said that no one will get a property tax rebate check this year to combat New Jersey's highest property taxes in the nation, which average $7,300 a household. When rebates return in the spring 2011, senior citizens, the disabled and low-income wage earners could get a tax credit rather than a rebate check but will get less than they received last year.

"We're moving the chairs on the Titanic and the ship is going down. It's going down under the weight of property taxes," said Assembly Budget Chairman Louis D. Greenwald, D-Camden.

Christie's budget would again skip the state's annual contribution the pension system for public workers. The state pension fund is underfunded by $46 billion and at risk of eventually becoming insolvent unless fixes are made. Corzine skipped a $2.5 billion pension payment this year and allowed municipalities to defer half of their scheduled contribution.

"They said they would responsibly fund the pension and they are not putting a penny into the pension. He said he would reduce property taxes and clearly this will cause skyrocketing property taxes," said Greenwald.

However, during an address to lawmakers last month, Christie hinted that he may not contribute to the pension system in the coming budget year unless lawmakers pass certain changes to reduce its cost.

Greenwald also said the budget includes a hospital tax and new professional licensing fees.

Christie says he's in position to be aggressive with cuts because it's what he was elected to do and he has political leverage to do so, unlike many of his counterparts in other states who are seeking re- election or forced into lame-duck status through term limits.

He has been upfront about his intentions to cut state spending in nearly every category as he tries to close a projected $11 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

"There is not going to be an area of citizenry in our state or interests in our state who's not going to be asked to be part of shared sacrifice," he said last week.

Christie unseated Corzine last year, promising to make government smaller and taxes lower.

During his administration, Corzine also faced budget crises that were also severe — though not this bad. He raised taxes on liquor and cigarettes and increased income taxes on families who make over $400,000.

Corzine's budget-cutting largely spared the working class and poor. The state pays $600 per week in maximum unemployment benefits — the second- highest in the country.

New Jersey also trails only New York as the state with the highest eligibility income for adults to qualify for state subsidized health insurance. Uninsured adults who have children can buy in to the system depending on their income. Parents in a family of four could earn up to $77,000 and still qualify.

Earlier this month, Christie slashed eligibility. No more adults making more than 133 percent of the poverty level — about $29,000 for a family of four — can enroll.

And nearly 12,000 legal immigrants who are not citizens are being ousted entirely from the FamilyCare insurance program on March 31.

Don Flett, who lives in Toms River, says he has a 33-year-old relative in Jackson Township who came to the United States with her family from Ukraine legally four years ago. He would not identify her.

A home health aide, she lost her employer-provided health insurance through work last year, then was diagnosed with kidney disease. Flett says her doctors say she'll face a lifetime of dialysis if she doesn't have a kidney transplant. But it's not clear how she might pay for it after she loses her FamilyCare coverage March 31. "If her creatinine level bumps up tomorrow," Flett asked, "Where's she going to go?"

Elsewhere, Christie's cuts could have less dramatic effects — but noticeable ones.

Last week, Gwen Torres waited at an NJ Transit bus stop in Camden for a ride to her Woodlynne home after her overnight shift as a nurse in Philadelphia. Taped to the shelter was a notice of a proposal to raise fares 25 percent on May 1 — a reaction to Christie's cut of the statewide transit system's subsidy.

Torres, 57, said the hike would cost her $25 to $35 per month. She said she and co-workers might start carpooling.

"It's going to be a lot cheaper to buy the gas," she said.

Democrats have criticized Christie for not reinstating an income tax surcharge on the wealthy, which ended Dec. 31. They estimate that would generate about $800 million in revenue and affect only 1 percent of taxpayers.

Christie has been critical of the surcharge, saying it affects some small businesses.

"The choices are horrendous," Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth. "We have no other option but to make these difficult, horrible decisions."

About $820 million in school aid will be cut on top of the $475 million that was just cut to rebalance the 2010 budget.

Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said Christie's proposed budget is "a disaster that would begin to dismantle the best public school system in America."

On Monday, Republican said the governor has no choice but to make deep cuts given a nearly $11 billion deficit for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins in July.

Assemblyman Joseph R. Malone III, R-Burlington, said he anticipated far deeper cuts would have been needed.

"Truthfully, I was happier than I expected to be," he said.

The budget must be approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed by Christie by July 1.

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