Four Takeaways from Christie’s Budget Address

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

The Governor made four new proposals in his speech here yesterday.

First, he proposed that state lottery revenues be dedicated to shoring up the public worker pension system. The public employee unions say they’re interested.

“We have a lot of details we need to understand. Is it legal? Is it being valued properly? Can you really do this?” asked CWA-NJ State Director Hetty Rosenstein.

The lottery generates about a billion dollars per year. Dedicating that to the pension funds would put a hole in the budget but make future pension payments a little easier for the state.

Legislative leaders are cautious.

“I’m not going to accept or criticize it either until we figure it out,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“I see it as a little bit of smoke and mirrors to try and lower a payment, so I would have to see the details,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said.

A second proposal from the governor was to tap into the reserves of Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield to create a fund that would provide money for drug treatment for poor people.

The state’s largest insurer put out a statement resisting such a move: “Raiding the reserves that protect the families we insure will only make insurance more expensive and less secure.”

An advocate says the national debate about the Affordable Care Act should play out first.

“I think this proposal should be explained further. We should look at the implications. But it just seems to me that we should wait and see what’s going to happen in Washington before we make big changes like this,” said NJ Policy Perspective Senior Policy Analyst Ray Castro.

The Assembly speaker thinks having Horizon create a fund for drug treatment for the needy holds promise.

“That’s something we’ll definitely look at because we always want to make sure that the underserved in the state of New Jersey, we take care of them,” Prieto said.

The governor’s third proposal was to start a dialogue about changing the school funding formula with a deadline of 100 days.

“One hundred days to get this done — no phony task forces, no stupid blue-ribbon commissions,” Christie said.

Everything is on the table, said Christie, abandoning his fairness formula that would have covered all students equally.

“I’m glad that he governor has realized his formula wasn’t fair, doesn’t work and is willing to sit at the table with us,” said Sweeney. “I can tell you the school funding formula is not a disaster.”

“I am ready to sit down with all the leaders and the governor and try to see what we can work out,” said Prieto.

The advocacy group for suburban and urban rim school districts sees opportunity in all this.

“It’s one thing to float ideas and it’s productive to hear people’s voices after you float ideas. But then the next step is what do you do with all those ideas? And this creates a situation where people have to at least consider doing something with the ideas they’ve heard,” said Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of Garden State Coalition of Schools.

Christie’s fourth proposal was to kick-start transportation improvements with a $400 million 2017 supplemental appropriation. But not even the governor’s press office can say where that money is coming from.

“Initially I thought it was a great idea, but again when you sit down and you know the complexities involved in transportation policy and financing and how project are funded, it really brings up more questions than it does satisfy any concerns we have as experts,” said Janna Chernetz, director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Bottom line? The lottery money being re-directed into pensions is being met with skepticism. Tapping Horizon’s surplus to create a drug addiction fund for the needy is being resisted. The idea of a new school funding formula is getting a mostly optimistic response, at least outside of the cities. And the transportation community is awaiting more details on a new infusion.