NJ treasurer says budget revenue projections down

NJ treasurer reduces budget projections, but not as much as Legislature's analyst says

Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey lawmakers heard Monday from their own budget analyst and the state treasurer that Gov. Chris Christie's earlier budget projections now appear to be too rosy.

But there's a dispute about how big the difference is. The Office of Legislative Service's David Rosen told lawmakers at a hearing Monday that the state's income will be $937 million less than Christie's administration previously projected between now and June 2014. Treasurer Andrew Eristoff said the difference is much smaller, about $165 million.

The difference of views on the state of government revenues could be an obstacle to having a budget negotiated between the Republican administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature, said Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate's budget committee. The state's last two budgets have been adopted without compromise between the parties or branches or government.

"What I'm trying to do here is get to a number that we're both comfortable here," he said in a day that lawmakers drilled into how much the state will have to spend.

At one point, he halted the hearing until Eristoff's staff could produce more details outlining the difference in forecasts from the two parties. After a few minutes, officials handed out a chart with Eristoff's handwritten notes.

Under state law, the budget must be adopted by June 30 and goes into effect the next day — and it must be balanced.

In February, Christie proposed a $32.9 billion spending plan.

Eristoff presented some relatively minor changes Monday to balance the budgets for both fiscal 2013 and 2014 despite lower revenue expectations. This year's revisions would come mostly from using surpluses and balances in various departments.

But if Rosen's numbers are right, there would need to be bigger changes to the spending plans to get it in balance for both this fiscal year and the coming one.

The biggest difference in the two projections is in how much might flow into the state coffers when New Jersey launches legalized online gambling.

It's authorized to begin by the end of 2013 and the state said it would bring in $180 million in taxes in the first year. Rosen said a more reasonable expectation is $40 million for the first year. But he expects that with delays in the program's launch, the state's boost for the coming fiscal year will be $30 million.

The main reason Eristoff said his projections are being lowered is that energy taxes are expected to be down because Superstorm Sandy knocked out power last fall, the winter was mild and natural gas prices low.

Both he and Rosen agreed that the big taxes — income, sales and business taxes — are looking stronger now than they did in February.

And on other taxes such as realty transfer fees and cigarette taxes, both estimates were relatively close. But in most cases where there were differences, the administration's numbers are more optimistic.

Rosen also told lawmakers there are two areas where he is accepting the state's figures but thinks changes are possible. One is an infusion of $120 million expected from a company that's taking over some functions of the state's lottery. The other is unused affordable housing funds that the state intends to collect from municipalities. Eristoff acknowledged some risks to both due to legal challenges.

Budget projections have been contentious in the last few years. Christie often blasts Rosen's projections, disputes that he's nonpartisan and has calls him "the Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers."

State Sen. Jen Beck, R-Red Bank, pointed out that under both the administration's and Rosen's forecasts, the state economy is improving.

"I certainly don't want it misrepresented that we for some reason are not making progress," she said. "The state is seeing a lot of growth."

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AP reporter Angela Delli Santi contributed to this report.

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