New Jersey lawmakers have five weeks to figure out where to find an additional $500 million for urban education that the Supreme Court has ordered the state to pay in the upcoming school year.
The court ruled Tuesday that last year's cut to schools has made it impossible for students in the 31 poorest districts to receive the "thorough and efficient" education required by the state constitution.
Last year, Gov. Chris Christie cut funding to all the state's schools by about $1 billion — he said the state couldn't afford not to. But he proposed a $250 million across-the-board increase for the coming school year before Tuesday's ruling.
The court order leaves the Republican governor and the Democrats who control the Legislature until June 30 to approve a balanced budget that includes the extra funding, or risk shutting down government.
Christie said Tuesday it's up to the Legislature to figure out where the money would come from, but Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Lou Greenwald said it's Christie's responsibility to amend the $29.4 billion budget he submitted in February so it complies with the court's order. Christie also threatened to veto the budget bill the Legislature sends him if it raises the money for school aid by increasing taxes.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Wednesday that the Legislature will deal with the latest strain on the budget. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said she expects Republicans and Democrats to work their way through the budget jam together.
"It is a joint responsibility of both the executive branch and the Legislature," Oliver said. "(Christie's) administration is going to bear whatever we decide to do. If our solution is distasteful to him, he wants to be able to distance himself from that. But, clearly, the governor cannot walk away from this, and he knows that."
Ideas for raising the money came quickly.
Assembly Republican budget officer Declan O'Scanlon said the Legislature should apply the $500 million in additional income tax revenue identified by the state treasurer to fund poor schools.
"No, that's not the way to do it," Oliver said of that plan. "It's not so simplistic as accepting the budget the governor handed to us and incorporating the $500 million in additional revenue. There are other issues in the governor's budget that we have to deal with."
The speaker said her focus will be on ways to expand the state's revenue base so several of the governor's proposed budget cuts — including $300 million for Medicaid, $93 million for a program that provides tax breaks to businesses in economically distressed cities, and $7.5 million for women's health clinics — can be restored.
Sweeney wants to go further than the court-ordered remedy. He said all 205 school districts identified by one Supreme Court justice as being inadequately funded should receive more state aid. That would cost $500 million on top of what the court ordered. The Legislature's budget officer forecast $914 million in additional income tax revenue through next June; Sweeney wants to apply all the additional revenue to education aid.
Sen. Ray Lesniak said it's imperative for an income tax surcharge on the state's highest wage earners to be reinstated. That would generate at least $400 million.
Christie has said the so-called millionaires' tax is a nonstarter.
At a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon in Cherry Hill, Christie said he was the only official standing between taxpayers and higher taxes.
"If I let my foot off their throat on tax increases, on any of them, they're going to come out and grab as much as they can grab," he said. "As they solve the problem of school funding, there is one simple rule: 'Do not raise taxes on the most overtaxed people in the United States of America already.'"