Christie Rebuffed by N.J. Court Over School Aid

Chris Christie’s 16-month campaign to control New Jersey spending has been rebuffed by the state’s highest court, which objected to school-aid reductions the Republican governor made to balance his first budget.

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision yesterday, ordered Christie to direct $500 million to the state’s poorest school districts for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The case involved the governor’s decision last year to cancel $1.6 billion anticipated by the 31 districts, whose students largely are poor, minority and low-achieving on standardized tests.

Christie, a former U.S. attorney for New Jersey who successfully prosecuted more than 100 corrupt public officials, said he won’t challenge the justices. He also told a town-hall meeting yesterday in Cherry Hill that he won’t raise taxes to comply with the order.

“This is the biggest setback he’s had,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey. “That was a big check on the governor. And by accepting this, he’s accepted that going forward he’s constrained by this court ruling.”

The result may have immediate consequences for Christie, 48, who has taken credit as the cost-cutting role model for Republican governors across the country. Last week, on word that New Jersey was due an estimated $500 million income-tax windfall, he said he would increase property-tax rebates and make payments to the state employee pension system.

‘Inadequately Funded’

Now, the unanticipated revenue will go to “all inadequately funded districts across New Jersey,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, said in a statement.

The Senate and Assembly are little more than a month from the June 30 deadline to enact New Jersey’s fiscal 2012 spending plan. Christie has proposed a $29.4 billion budget -- a figure that may change should the U.S. government reject $300 million in proposed Medicaid changes and force the state to repay $271 million for a canceled New York City commuter-train tunnel beneath the Hudson River.

The ruling yesterday coincided with the release of a survey that found Christie’s unfavorable rating at its highest since his January 2010 inauguration. Sixty percent of respondents said the governor was doing a fair or poor job, compared with 55 percent surveyed last month by PublicMind, the polling institute at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey.

‘Speed Bump’

Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville, said the court’s action was Christie’s first brush with a judiciary influencing a state spending decision.

“This is a speed bump in the Chris Christie rollercoaster to spend less money in New Jersey,” Dworkin said in a telephone interview. “It’s not a full stop. It’s not going to shut down the government. It’s a glitch.”

The decision -- which applies to 31 of 591 districts -- may help strengthen Christie’s case with voters that education funding must be equalized and that his schools overhaul is necessary to improve education. The effort has included his call to reduce pay and benefits for public-school teachers, prompting the New Jersey Education Association to launch a multimillion- dollar television, radio and billboard anti-Christie advertising campaign.

“This court’s decision, as strange as it may seem, is a win for the Christie administration,” said Peter Woolley, director of PublicMind. The 3-2 result “reflects the fact that there is generally a consensus that the funding formula has to change,” Woolley said.

‘Very Happy’

The schools in the court case are collectively known as Abbott districts, a reference to one of the case’s original litigants. In Jersey City, one of the Abbotts, schools Superintendent Charles T. Epps said the district “is very happy” with the court directive.

“While we do not know how much additional aid the district will receive in the future, we are hopeful that any future calculation will address any disparities associated with the school budget that may have negatively impacted the delivery of educational services,” he said in an e-mail.

Barbara Keshishian, NJEA president, said the ruling was welcome.

“While the decision does not restore the funding previously lost by schools or immediately undo all the damage caused by more than $1.3 billion in cuts, it begins the process of restoring our schools to fiscal health and reaffirms our state’s longstanding commitment to investing wisely in our children’s future,” Keshishian said in a statement.

To contact the reporters on this story: Elise Young in N.J. Statehouse at eyoung30@bloomberg.net; Terrence Dopp in N.J. Statehouse at tdopp@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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