Treasurer defends budget to Assembly committee

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

As the chief architect of the budget, State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio did her best to sell it to the committee. It has a healthy surplus, she said, the economy is generally producing more revenue, and the governor is determined to put more money into mass transit, and especially education.

“Controlling school funding, making county college affordable for people making $45,000 or less, trying to work with higher ed to make higher ed more affordable, expanding free pre-K around the state,” Muoio said.

The budget includes a true millionaire’s tax. Anyone earning more than $1 million a year would pay 2% more. Murphy proposed that last year, but legislative leaders made him set the threshold at $5 million.

One of this year’s big selling points is that the budget identifies $1 billion in savings — $200 million at the departmental level, $800 million from audits and rebidding of public worker health contracts.

“With both CWA, prior to this, and also the NJEA within the past year, has come to the table and accepted the Medicare Advantage health care benefit, which is projected to savings of $96 million this year of the $800 million,” Muoio said.

Democrats were basically positive.

“First of all, let me say the governor has delivered a budget to the Legislature that we are generally favorable toward. It does a lot of things that we had talked about through his first year,” said Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chair John Burzichelli.

Ranking Republican John DiMaio asked Muoio why she calls the budget a “middle class blueprint.”

“We are trying to dig our way out of years of lack of investment in the state. We have a transit system that was gutted and did not get the funding it deserved. We had a school funding formula that was essentially not working for many of our school districts,” Muoio said.

He pressed her on SFRA, the School Funding Reform Act.

“In my world, where I travel about, property taxes is probably the number one issue that people are concerned with. And we continue to grow programs, and do new things, and spend money other places when we have an opportunity with the revenue growth we had, and do continue to have now, to really drilling down on school funding. The SFRA is still $1.5 billion short,” said Assemblyman John DiMaio.

“We have competing budget challenges as you are fully aware. We’ve made the increased funding for the school funding formula and for transit. We are trying to build up our surplus. We want to make our pension payment. We’re trying to find savings through health benefits, which can also accrue to local districts and help with property tax pressure there,” Muoio said.

“During this administration, the Legislature and the governor signed into law over $2.25 billion in tax hikes. How does that help the middle class?” asked Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.

“The vast majority of our new revenues for this past budget and this budget come from our highest earners in this state,” Muoio said.

Monday begins the parade of Cabinet officers who will come before the Assembly and Senate Budget Committees over the next six weeks. So far, the only point of disagreement among the majority Democrats is the millionaire’s tax.