NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron discussed Gov. Chris Christie’s 2018 budget address at the State House with two members of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Linda Greenstein and Sen. Jennifer Beck.
Aron: I’m with Democratic Sen. Linda Greenstein of Middlesex County and Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck of Monmouth County. Linda, what did you think of the governor’s budget address?
Greenstein: Well, there was a lot in it that I really didn’t agree with, of course. I know that it was his goal, especially since it was his last address, to tout his accomplishments and I’m not going to say he didn’t have any, but I think a lot of what he said I don’t agree with. An example is the state of New Jersey’s economy. I think we’re actually not in very good shape. When you look at anything from foreclosures to business we’re not in very good shape. I think our pension system, our school funding is flat, our municipal funding is flat — these are not good signs.
Aron: The money’s going into the pensions — that’s the priority for him.
Greenstein: This year it’s pretty good, it’s not everything but it’s pretty good, but there have been many other years where it hasn’t been. And most important, in 2011 promises were made. Those promises were broken. That’s why I can’t agree with what he’s doing.
Aron: You’re talking about pension promises.
Aron: Jen Beck, what did you think?
Beck: Well, it was a pretty comprehensive speech. I think he touched on a lot. Look, our economy is better — it’s not perfect, but we certainly have regained the vast majority of jobs. A 4 percent unemployment rate is a positive. I think the fact that this governor has put $8 billion into our pension system, which is more than the last five governors did, by far, is an accomplishment. And I was very hopeful hearing him talk about his commitment to reviewing the school funding formula because there are 267 districts, in New Jersey, that are underfunded and there are 300 that are overfunded so the system is unfair.
Aron: Do you think that the Legislature will go along with the call to pass something within 100 days? Everything is on the table, said the governor.
Beck: So the Senate president and I have worked, for more than a year now, on looking at the school funding formula and figuring out ways to get money to underfunded districts that have had high rates of enrollment growth and we’re pretty far along. It’s a complicated formula, but nonetheless I feel like the State Senate, in particular, is far along in that conversation and I think 100 days is doable.
Aron: Sen. Greenstein, what do you think about re-doing the school funding formula? Will the Democrats go along with whatever the governor purposes, as long as he’s flexible?
Greenstein: Well, the fact that he’s calling for 100 days might be good, because it gives us a push. I don’t know if this can be done in 100 days, but we should push for it. The idea of doing away with the school funding formula I don’t agree with, because I actually think it’s good. It was blessed by the courts and I think that we have to try to work within it. I do agree though with Sen. Beck that there’s a lot of unfairness right now. The hold harmless communities, as they’re called, that was meant to be a temporary addition of money to a lot of communities and unfortunately that has become semi-permanent and we need to take from those communities and give it to the many communities that are underfunded.
Aron: What did you think about his call to tap the surplus of Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield and I think he said we would direct the money to drug addiction treatment?
Greenstein: Well, this is something that we certainly need to look into and learn more about. Addiction treatment is certainly worthy, but we have to make sure our hospitals can survive. He’s talking about cutting charity care, there are the issues about Obamacare and the ACA and how we are going to deal with cuts there, on the federal level. So we have lots of problems and I don’t know if we can immediately decide that we are going to tap that money into addiction care.
Aron: Would Horizon allow that?
Beck: So, just on one thing. The expansion of Medicaid in New Jersey got a lot of people health insurance that never had it. So, the charity numbers aren’t as high as they used to be and we’re taking that money and redirecting it to getting more physicians and nurses educated in the state of New Jersey and that’s a positive. Would Horizon go along with it? Look, they are someone that administers health care and they know this is a crisis. They absolutely have to be involved in that conversation and if they have surplus that is available that can be part of our effort I think we should take a look at it and have a conversation.
Aron: Very quickly from each of you — should the lottery be devoted to the pension system?
Beck: I am guessing that is a more complicated question than the way you put it. I’m not sure how you dedicate that business to the pension system. Certainly I’m guessing that we’re going to hear a lot more about it.
Aron: How about you?
Greenstein: Well first of all, the lottery money is already so over dedicated to so many other very important things.
Beck: Constitutionally dedicated.
Greenstein: That’s right, so many very important things — senior citizens, education. It is very important for us to fund the pensions. That’s one of my top priorities. But I’m not sure, and very frankly, what this sounded like to me, at very first flush, was monetization, which we heard about in the Corzine administration and that definitely didn’t fly. So I’m not sure whether this will, but I do want to hear more.
Aron: Sen. Linda Greenstein, Sen. Jennifer Beck thank you both very much. That’s it here in the Assembly Chamber after the governor’s budget address.