Gov. Chris Christie unveiled a $34.4 billion state budget proposal Tuesday that would include modest school spending increases while avoiding tax hikes for the fifth year in a row.
With his administration still besieged by investigations into the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, Christie spoke somberly but pointedly, saying New Jersey faces a crisis if the state doesn't make changes to its retirement benefit system.
He said the budget plan includes a $2.25 billion payment to the public employees' retirement fund.
"That payment is nearly the equivalent of the total payments made in the 10 years before we arrived by five different governors," he said in prepared remarks to the state Legislature. "We’ve kept faith with our pensioners."
Christie's budget, which is 4.2 percent larger than last year's, would include $9 billion in direct aid to schools, which is $38 million more than the current year.
Under the plan, Medicaid funding will jump by $200 million, though the state and federal governments would split the costs. The state's surplus would be more than $300 million in the new budget, Christie said.
"This has truly been an era of fiscal restraint," he said in his prepared remarks. "But even with strong fiscal restraint, we continue to fund what matters most to New Jerseyans."
Even though the $34.4 billion budget represents an increase over last year's plan, 94 percent of that increase - virtually all of it - is taken up by three things: pensions, health benefits, and debt, Christie said. "Nine out of every 10 dollars of new spending this year goes to fund these three entitlements," he said.
"The looming crisis is clear," he said in his prepared remarks. "Due to our pension, health benefit, and debt obligations, only 6 percent of new spending can be focused on the areas where we really want to dedicate our resources: education, tax relief, public safety, higher education, drug rehabilitation, health care."
Leading Democrats in the Legislature said after the speech that they appreciated the "conciliatory" tone of Christie's speech but that they would not consider changes to the pension system beyond the overhauls Christie signed into law in 2011, according to NJ.com.
“We’re not doing it,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, according to NJ.com. “We made a commitment. We’re not breaking the commitment.”
According to the Christie administration, the budget also includes:
- $5 million to support preschool initiatives in New Jersey.
- Increasing funding for the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program by $4.8 million to almost $54 million, and protecting $12 million in charter school funding.
- $2.3 billion for higher education, an increase of $159 million, or almost 8 percent, above last year.
- An increase of $14 million for tuition assistance grants.
- $4.5 million in funding to expand New Jersey’s mandatory drug court program and funding for an innovative substance abuse treatment program that integrates employment services.