New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic leaders expect a state budget to be passed on time, saying a standoff that shuts down government, which happened in 2006, would help nobody.
Lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget by July 1 or shut down all nonessential government services.
And with New Jersey's first Republican governor in eight years and a Democratically controlled Legislature, the possibility of a late budget seemed plausible. But as revenues continued to shrivel, there has been less money to fight over.
According to revenue figures released last week, the state came up $300 million short of projected income tax collections this year. And collections are again expected to lag in the 2011 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Now, lawmakers seem resigned to getting the budget passed and past them.
"This budget is getting so bad by the minute, I wish we could do it tomorrow and be done with it,'' Sen. President Stephen Sweeney told The Associated Press. ``Every time we look at new numbers, they are worse."
Sweeney seemed hopeful that the plan might even get passed early -- a contrast to 2006 when both the governor's office and Legislature were controlled by Democrats and their intraparty fighting lead to a weeklong shutdown of state government during Gov. Jon Corzine's first year in office.
"Nobody wants to see that happen. We have enough problems to grapple with," said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said.
"We're going to work with this governor to get this budget done," Sweeney said. "If there's any chance of a shutdown, it's not going to be because we're not working with him."
While the governor proposes the budget, lawmakers can make changes. Once they send it to him, he can use his veto pen to scratch off spending but can't make other wholesale changes.
Last week, the governor pledged that he and lawmakers would "cooperate to get a budget signed before June 30."
"The way to do that is to work together on a budget, without any tax increase," Christie said.
Tax increases have been the largest point of disagreement.
Democrats argue that many of Christie's cuts are tantamount to tax increases. They say the budget reduces the state's earned-income tax credit; reduces property tax rebates by 75 percent over last year; won't allow more low-income seniors and disabled citizens to join a program that freezes property tax rates; and increases co-payments for early intervention services for disabled children and health insurance premiums for working adults, among other things.
Christie and Republicans say that at a time when revenues are shrinking, state spending should follow and that the budget fulfills his promise of smaller government and few taxes.
"We have a fiscal crisis in New Jersey. Everybody would love to be governor at a time when you could just give things away, make everybody happy, make everybody your friend," Christie said this week in a speech to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York. "But those are not the times when I was elected, not the leadership I was asked to provide."
"Property taxes are now so high in New Jersey that people are now voting with their feet _ they are leaving our state in droves," he added.
Excluding $1 billion in remaining federal stimulus money, Christie's $29.3 billion budget represents a 5 percent reduction in state spending.
"We continue to hear about increasing taxes that people cannot afford instead of committing to the governor's vision for an affordable New Jersey with a government that spends less and actually serves the people, not itself," said Assembly Republican Budget Officer Joe Malone, R-Bordentown. "Taxpayers have clear expectations of us, it's time we meet them."
Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, recently tried to raise taxes on millionaires but the governor vetoed the measure within minutes _ literally.
They wanted to use the money generated by the tax to restore property tax rebates for seniors and to eliminate newly proposed copays and deductibles on a state health prescription plan used by seniors and the disabled.
A day before the vote, Christie announced that new money became available and he was leaving the program as it existed. It was a win for Democrats because they saw some of the funding they wanted restored. But it gave them less political might to push for the tax increase on the wealthy.
"It seems the millionaire's tax was the one thing Democrats were really invested in this budget," said Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics. "At this point, the Democrats seem as though they will be voting up or down on the budget that the governor presented."
Sweeney hinted that the tax on millionaires could again make its way to the governor's office. Even though it's unlikely Christie would ever sign it, getting Republicans on record as voting against something to restore property tax rebates give Democrats campaign ammunition.
Sweeney said seniors haven't realized the rebates are gone yet because they don't get the checks until the fall. But they will notice before then next major legislative elections in November 2011.
Republicans argue that raising taxes on the wealthy will cause more of them to leave the state. GOP State Party Chairman Jay Webber didn't seem worried about Republicans voting against the tax increase even if the money did go toward rebates.
"Most of us make property tax rebates, especially to seniors, a top priority. It's a priority we can't afford this year," Webber said.
"We're not going to raise taxes and we're going to live within our means," he said. "The governor has lived up to that