POLITICS

New Jersey Budget Pain At Hand For State Legislators

01/02/2013 09:25 am ET | Updated Mar 04, 2013

New Jersey lawmakers expect to hear more uncomfortable talk about the state's finances as they gather in the new year.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee is to meet Thursday to discuss lagging revenues and the possibility of midyear budget cuts. (It was the only panel on the post-holiday legislative schedule as of Monday.)

With Gov. Christie and all 120 legislators up for reelection next November, the $31.7 billion budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is expected to become a political hot potato.

The budget looked wobbly before Hurricane Sandy hit: Revenue projections were already trailing by $264 million. After the storm tore up the Shore in late October, November's tax collections came in 11 percent short, nearly doubling the budget deficit to $451 million, according to recent reports from the Treasury.

Federal funding for reconstruction may give the state economy a temporary bump, perhaps the only fiscal bright side at the close of 2012. The U.S. Senate on Friday approved a $60 billion federal aid package for New Jersey and New York. The bill awaits action in the House.

Christie, a Republican, based the state budget on overall 7 percent revenue growth, which several credit-rating agencies deemed overly optimistic. Revenues have missed the mark each month, widening the budget gap and increasing the tax collections needed to balance the budget.

As it stands now, the state will have to increase revenue intake nearly 12 percent for the rest of the fiscal year to meet Christie's budget goals, according to a recent report from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. To put that in perspective, revenues grew at 2.9 percent last year and haven't topped 8 percent growth since 2006, when the housing market was booming.

Throughout the second half of 2012, Christie exuded confidence that the state economy would rebound, revenues would hit their marks, and he would deliver on a tax-cut promise he made at the start of 2012. Christie wanted to give those making $400,000 or less the equivalent of a 10 percent property tax cut through an income-tax credit.

The Legislature, citing lagging tax collections from last year's budget, put aside $183 million to go toward the first year of the four-year tax cut plan, but only if the state met the governor's revenue expectations. Christie spent the summer pooh-poohing lawmakers at town hall meetings for holding back the money.

Although members of the two Democratic-controlled chambers warned this summer that state officials were more likely to end up cutting programs than cutting taxes in 2013, it wasn't until Sandy hit that Christie cast doubt on his tax cut.

At a Nov. 28 news conference in Trenton, he swatted away reporters' questions about potential budget cuts, saying simply that if his administration had to reduce spending, it would.

State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff cannot attend Thursday's hearing due to a scheduling conflict.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) said the committee will hear again from David Rosen, a longtime budget analyst at the Office of Legislative Services. The committee hopes to meet with Sidamon-Eristoff later in January.

Rosen found himself the unwanted center of attention in Trenton in the spring when he predicted that Christie's budget plans would lead to a deficit.

Christie then called Rosen the Jack "Kevorkian of the numbers," referring to the late doctor who served time for helping terminally ill patients commit suicide.

Rosen declined to engage the governor by responding to his comment. He has, however, stuck by his budget forecast.

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Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com or on Twitter at @joellefarrell. ___

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