BY TOM HESTER SR.
State aid for New Jersey public schools will rise by $213 million to a record $8.8 billion under the $32.1 billion 2012-13 state budget proposed Tuesday by Gov. Chris Christie.
The governor introduced his “New Jersey Comeback” budget before a joint session of the Legislature, and his cabinet and state Supreme Court justices in a crowded Statehouse Assembly chamber in Trenton.
The proposed $32.1 billion package, a $2.4 billion increase over the 2011-12 fiscal package, begins July 1, and represents an 8 percent increase in spending when compared to the current budget. The proposal relies using $288 million in state surplus funds, a move that would reduce the current surplus to $300 million.
Christie noted that one of every three dollars in the budget is earmarked for education.
He also called for a $100 billion increase in aid to colleges and universities, including a $390 million increase in state tuition aid to college students.
The governor again called on the Democratic-controlled Legislature to send him an across-the-board 10 percent state income tax at a cost of $150 million in the proposed budget. To tempt the Democrats to act on the proposal, Christie also called for a 20 percent to 25 percent increase over two years in the earned income tax credit for New Jersey’s working poor, a proposal he cut from the current budget in July. He said the average low-income worker would receive an annual benefit of $550.
The proposed budget also contains $1.1 billion for the state-run public employee pension fund, an increase of $587 million over last year’s contribution. Christie could have call for a $500 million contribution. The governor said the amount represents 3.42 percent of the entire budget and in terms of absolute dollars, it is the single largest state contribution ever.
"The pension reform we enacted has made employee pensions safer and more reliable," Christie said. "It has put us on a sound long-term track. My proposal of $1.1 billion for pensioners in this state reinforces my commitment to the security and financial future of all public workers.
The governor added, "Why not cut income taxes when we are increasing funding for higher education by over $100 million," the governor said. "Why not cut income taxes when we are providing more than $390 million in funding for student aid – the highest funding level in state history. Why not cut income taxes when we "are making the largest pension contribution in history at $1.1 billion. Why not cut income taxes when we are providing for our most vulnerable."
Christie also proposed the creation of a state Division of Aging Services that would be part of the Department of Human Services and would be the single point of access for all of services to seniors. The governor said the division would enable the state to coordinate all senior services – nursing home care, community care, pharmaceutical assistance for the aged and disabled, senior gold, utility lifeline.
The governor also proposed the creation of a division within the state Department of Children and Families that would “be the point of entry for all families with children with developmental disabilities – allowing them to benefit from a battery of services without having to be shuttled from agency to agency.” Christie said the concept is to treat the whole child and the whole family – in one place. The division would develop an integrated set of services – and for the families and provide a transition process through adolescence to adult services.
Christie said that to go with the state mandate that cities and town increase property taxes by no more than 2 percent, he is maintaining in the proposed budget the amount of state aid to municipalities that they received in the current budget.
The governor proposed that $350 million be used to keep businesses from leaving New Jersey while attempting to lure others to the state. The figure is a $150 million increase over the $200 million set aside in the current budget.
“I am presenting to you my budget for the Fiscal Year 2013,” Christie said. “The budget I propose would total $32.1 billion for the coming fiscal year. While this represents minimal growth from last year, it is still below the level of state spending when I took office (in 2010). This is in sharp contrast to the increase in state spending of 56 percent that occurred in the seven years between 2001 and 2008."
The governor also called for an increase of $89 million for the state Transportation Trust Fund to help finance road and bridge repairs and mass transit.
The state Department of Human Services budget would get a $10 million increase to help finance mental health care in communities rather than placing more people in state-run institutions. In an effort to cut the waiting list for housing for people with developmental disabilities, Christie proposed that an additional $24.7 million be provided to expand community placements.
Noting that state-run Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital in Hunterdon County will close in June, the governor said the savings would provide an additional $5.6 million for the mental health services provided by the state Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
The governor also announced that Veterans Haven North, a facility for homeless veterans will open at the Hagedorn facility when the hospital closes.
“One final initiative I would like to call to your attention,” Christie said. “In my State of the State, I proposed to you that, for drug offenders who have not committed a violent crime, we require of them mandatory treatment instead of mandatory prison. i was clear that under this administration “no life is disposable.” Next week, keeping with that promise, I will announce the specifics of my drug treatment program for non-violent offenders.
"To underscore my commitment to this cause, I have included an additional $2.5 million in this budget to establish a mandatory drug court for nonviolent offenders in all 21 New Jersey counties,” the governor said. “This will begin to give us the resources to place these individuals in treatment through the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services – to make this program a reality. It is the first step toward reclaiming these lives and treating drug addiction for what it really is – a disease that can be conquered, but only with effective treatment.”