New Jersey's Democratic-controlled Legislature has approved a $29.4 billion budget, sending back to the Republican governor a spending plan that cuts hundreds of millions of dollars in public school aid, suspends property tax rebates and adds levies on businesses, students, the elderly and the disabled.
The budget, approved by the Assembly early Tuesday morning and by the Senate hours earlier, is close to the one Gov. Chris Christie introduced in March amid some blunt talk about the state's bleak finances. He said New Jersey was facing an $11 billion deficit and needed to cure its addiction to spending.
Democrats got just $74 million in programs and services restored to the budget out of roughly $400 million sought. They insisted that Republicans sponsor the budget bills, so the GOP would own the bare-bones budget.
Christie was scheduled to sign his first budget Tuesday afternoon. The fiscal year starts Thursday.
In the Senate, Democrats supplied the four votes needed for the budget to pass. All 17 Republicans supported the budget, and it was approved 21-19.
The Assembly took up the main appropriations bill at 10:30 p.m. Monday and debated it for three hours before passing the budget along party lines. Eight Democrats joined 33 Republicans to get the budget approved, 41-37.
Assembly budget officer Joe Malone said before the vote it was "beyond difficult."
"New Jersey has experienced the greatest loss in revenue in state history," Malone said. "But the end product is austere, honest and responsible for everyone in our state."
Democrats who supported the budget said they were voting "yes" reluctantly to avoid a government shutdown. New Jersey's Constitution requires a balanced budget be in place by July 1, or nonessential services shut down.
Lou Greenwald, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, said the budget was "loaded with tax increases" for average New Jerseyans.
"Unfortunately, the pain is coming and it will be real and it will be immediate," he said. "You're staring down a tax-laden budget that puts all the pain atop working class New Jerseyans, seniors and disabled households and the poor."
Even Republicans said they didn't like parts of the budget, which cuts spending by 9 percent over last year. But, Republican Sen. Joe Pennacchio commended Christie for charting a more responsible fiscal course for the future while Democratic Majority Leader Barbara Buono said the budget contains wrong-headed choices.
The budget skips a $3 billion contribution to the state pension system, for example, and saves $848 million over last year by suspending property tax rebates.
Democrats enacted a one-year surcharge on millionaires, but Christie vetoed the tax and the Legislature failed to override it. The $600 million or so the tax would have raised was to restore rebates for senior citizens and disabled homeowners.
One of the most unpopular budget cuts among Democrats was the elimination of $7.5 million in state funding to 58 family planning centers. Democratic Sen. Loretta Weinberg, of Teaneck, led the charge to restore the funds, and the Senate approved the restoration by a 30-10 majority. The Assembly approved the bill 42-22 with 13 abstentions.
Christie has not said whether he would veto the measure.
Christie had trouble within his own party shoring up support for the tax and fee increases that provide the underpinnings of the budget.
On Monday, he shored up support for the proposal by rescinding an increase in the fees businesses pay to apply for partnerships or file annual reports. Sen. Tony Bucco, a Republican, said an overbudgeted payroll account would be tapped to make up the $5 million in revenue.
The budget deal announced a week ago seemed ready to unravel when two Republicans in the Assembly said they wouldn't support it. Assembly members Alison McHose, of Sparta, and Michael Carroll, of Morristown, want more money for suburban schools. Both were called in to the governor's office for private meetings with Christie on Monday; they emerged saying they were ready to vote for the budget.
McHose offered an amendment to divert $613 million dedicated for preschools in poor districts to instead aid suburban schools; the motion failed to gain the needed support.
Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Washington, was temporarily replaced on the Senate budget committee because he wouldn't vote for four bills that raise taxes or fees on businesses. Another "aye" vote was needed to advance the bills from the committee.