Whether it’s the inherent power of the New Jersey governor’s office or the political deftness of the current occupant, Gov. Chris Christie, in his final months in office, is still getting his way. Two weeks ago, he announced that he was invoking authority he’d negotiated with lawmakers around budget time to take money from anywhere in the state budget to fund a program to fight the opioid crisis, a health emergency he declared back in February. Monday, on his monthly call-in show, he finally revealed where the roughly $200 million is coming from.
Ninety million dollars in debt service. The governor says his moving the state lottery into the pension system has made Wall Street take notice, meaning lower rates on borrowing; $70 million in lapsed, or unused, funds from the last budget, including from pre-K expansion and tuition aid; and $40 million or so will come from surplus 2017 revenue projections.
“We’re going through the audit process right now to make sure that the funds are what we think they need to be and that’ll be announced in February, but our indications are that, if all we need is another $40 million to get to $200 [million] that we’ll have at least that, if not significantly more,” he said Monday night.
The governor’s cheekiness over where the money was coming from led some to speculate that he was planning to raid funds from environmental settlements before voters get a chance next month to require that those funds go to cleanups only. “Bull,” said Christie.
“I mean this is on the front page of the Gannett papers today [Monday]. And it’s completely made up. And [spokesman Brian Murray] told them ‘the governor is not diverting money from any legal settlements.’ One, because I found another way to do it and two, because I wouldn’t be getting the money they were talking about. There’s no way that’s going to be paid before Jan. 16. It’s been settled, but by the time you have to go through all the paperwork, court approvals and all the rest, it’s not going to come until after Jan. 16,” he added.
Critics say the governor is making it sound like this is free money. Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer says, for instance, the savings in debt service comes at a cost for someone else.
“He wants to refinance some bonds in the same way you or I would refinance our house,” explained Schaer. “When we refinance our house, we traditionally do two things. Number one, we extend the maturity of when we’ll pay it off. And number two, because we’re borrowing money for a longer period of time, we’re going to have not only a longer payback but an increased payback, so instead of owing $100 on your mortgage today, we’re going to take out a second mortgage and it’s going to be $120.”
Critics are finding it hard to say anything negative about an opioid fight, but even the governor’s lieutenant suggested that she might’ve used that $200 million for tax relief.
Schaer also criticized the governor taking the $5 million promised to pre-K expansion, which Christie said became available because schools didn’t ask for it.
“Is this wise economically? The answer is no. Is it wise from a policy point of view in terms of destruction from the opioid crisis? The answer is probably yes,” conceded Schaer. “So, one would hope that the governor would have found the money that would not be deleterious to programs that we’ve already agreed upon, but rather funds that were, in fact, available.”
Democrats may not like it, but the governor has the power to rob whatever Peter he wants to pay the Paul of his choice, and Chris Christie knows that all too well.