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NJ legislature sends $32.9B budget to Christie

Angela Delli Santi, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- The New Jersey Legislature passed a new state budget on Monday, sending the $32.9 billion spending plan to Gov. Chris Christie's desk a week ahead of deadline and with little fanfare.

The Assembly vote of 52-25 came with no discussion the week after a budget deal was worked out between the governor's office and the legislature.

The Senate passed the budget earlier, its 29-11 vote following an hour of party-line commentary. Republicans said they were satisfied with the budget that changed little from the one Christie proposed in February, while Democrats were critical of items the final budget lacked, including no funding for expanded preschools, women's health clinics or to restore a 2010 cut to a tax credit for the working poor.

"I'm not overly thrilled about this budget," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo, a Democrat from Bergen County. "By negotiating a budget, we were able to protect some of the priorities of our constituents and some of the most vulnerable population here in the state of New Jersey, and we were able to protect areas that perhaps would have been line-itemed or cut from the budget if we were not in a negotiated process."

The negotiated budget made changes of less than $100 million from the original proposal. County colleges and nursing homes got more money, while a $2 million school voucher program that Christie supported was dropped. An additional $7 million kept 270 school districts from losing state aid in the coming year, but low-income, senior and disabled residents in line for property tax rebates in June will have to wait until August for the credit.

Sarlo said Christie's power over the budget process left little wiggle room since the governor certifies revenues on which the spending is based and has the power to red-line spending out of the document before signing it. Democrats have repeatedly criticized Christie's revenue forecasts as overly optimistic. If the targets are not met, spending would have to be cut or taxes raised to make up the shortfall.

Republican Sen. Kevin O'Toole of Bergen County credited Christie's budget for investing more than $9 billion in education, making the legally required $1.6 billion payment to the employee pension fund and relying on fewer non-recurring revenues to plug budget gaps.

But Sen. Dick Codey of Essex County, who served as governor in 2004 and 2005, described the budget as heartless.

"This budget needs a heart transplant and it needs it now," he said.

Christie has until Sunday to sign the budget into law for the fiscal year that begins at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Budget negotiations have not always gone so smoothly or been completed so early. Democrats crafted their own budget two years ago, and Christie slashed all their add-ins and more before signing it. He also took a red pen to the budget Democrats sent him last year, then forced them back to Trenton in July to consider his tax cut plan, which they refused to post for a vote.

One casualty of the budget is a scholarship program that would use taxpayer money to send children in some cities to private schools. Starting the program has long been a priority both for many people in the inner-cities who want to see more school choice and for some conservatives who also see the program as a way to boost religious schools.

The concept is deeply opposed by teachers unions and many suburban Democrats, including state Sen. Barbara Buono, who is running for governor. The concept has been around for several years but has never had this much traction.

Derrell Bradford, executive director of the education arm of Better Education for Kids, said it was a step forward for the scholarship program to get the consideration it did.

"It was great that it got in there. It was excellent that it lasted as long as it did. It was ultimately a casualty of timing," Bradford said. "This is a really, really difficult time to get something innovative done."

Another element that some hoped would be in the budget was an increase in the state's Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, which Christie reduced in 2010 and has not restored.

Bill Holland, director of the liberal group New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said that shows Christie's priorities are in helping the well-off, not the poor. "People making $15,000 a year are paying higher taxes," he said.

But Holland said he believes the tax credit should be funded through a separate bill, not the full budget.


Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this report.