With This Budget Battle Over, Both Sides Look Ahead to the Next One

By David Cruz

Gov. Chris Christie likened them to college kids, cramming for finals. But lawmakers on both sides said the budget process — despite its week of rancor and its ultimately predictable outcome — is a healthy exercise.

“I like the governor,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, experiencing his first Trenton budget process. “He’s faced with difficult decisions in challenging times. The treasurer was in an unenviable position as were we on the budget committee. But ultimately a budget is a statement of priorities. What do you do in an emergency situation? It’s triage.”

And as a statement of priorities, the Democratically-controlled legislature passed a document that reinstates funding for the Earned Income Tax Credit, women’s health and senior citizens programs, among others. They also reinstate the full payment to the public employees pension fund, paying for it by bringing back the so-called millionaires tax and other taxes.

“New Jersey constantly lags behind and it’s not lack of raising taxes,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi. “They were raised 115 times in the prior administrations before Gov. Christie, so what we don’t want to do is implement additional taxes and drive businesses and our small business owners and everybody else out of the state. We might as well provide them with a U-Haul truck.”

The governor made it clear this week what he thought about the Democratic spending plan.

“Let me guarantee you what’s going to happen,” he told a crowd at a town hall meeting Wednesday. “The same thing that’s happened every time they have sent me an income tax increase in the nearly five years I’ve been governor now. I will veto it.”

But Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg chided the governor for minimizing the legislature’s efforts. “The Democratic majority, the people who voted that budget through yesterday, have actually presented to the governor a balanced budget that only asks people who are earning more than a million dollars to help pay for a little bit of it,” she said. “And if the governor would like to rewrite history and say that’s college kids cramming for their exams, I’d say he needs a little better lesson in economics.”

As for the billions in pension payments, the subject of lawsuits and demonstrations? That question was mostly answered by the courts this week. The governor — endowed with the power of the executive order and the line item veto — says it’s time to get back to the negotiating table on further pension reform, which the union looked at with skepticism.

“Yesterday, the legislature stood up and said pension payments are not optional,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, director of government relations for the New Jersey Education Association. “This is not like going on vacation where you can decide whether or not you want to do it depending on how much money you have. This is a promise to the people and our union is going to pursue every avenue available to us to make sure that the pension’s funded because this is about the security of hundreds of thousands of people who live in New Jersey.”