Christie Counts on Recover With $32.1 Billion N.J. Budget

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie proposed a $32.1 billion spending plan, the biggest in five years, that counts on tax revenue increasing the most since before the recession began.

The budget, which is $2.4 billion more than the plan enacted last year, would reduce income and business taxes while making a $1.1 billion pension payment, the highest in state history. It would increase school aid by $213 million and cut funding for distressed cities.

“Today, we will both maintain our fiscal discipline, and drive New Jersey into a new era of growth,” Christie said in a speech to lawmakers. “Today, it is time to put the New Jersey comeback into high gear.”

Christie, a 49-year-old first-term Republican, is calling for a 10 percent income-tax cut over three years. He predicts state revenue will rise 7.3 percent in fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. He has said his tax cuts, which will cost more than $500 million next fiscal year, will spur the economy.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, say Christie’s income-tax cut proposal favors the wealthy and that he should focus on easing the property-tax burden. Christie has accused Democrats of ignoring taxes and job creation while spending the past month on a gay-marriage bill that he vetoed Feb. 18.

Slow Recovery

Rising pension costs and a slow recovery from the longest recession since World War II led Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings to lower New Jersey’s credit grade last year. While revenue in the first half of this fiscal year rose 3 percent compared with the same period of 2010, it was $326 million less than targets.

New Jersey’s revenue dropped 11.3 percent in fiscal 2009 as the economy slumped. It fell 3.5 percent the next year, before rising 2.9 percent in 2011, and is projected to rise 3.5 percent this fiscal year. The governor stressed that spending for 2013 remains below fiscal 2008 levels.

“We also have avoided overly optimistic assumptions about revenue,” Christie said. “These will only get us in trouble in the future.”

The $29.7 billion budget Christie signed last year has increased to $31 billion as the administration supplemented spending, in part because the Legislature underfunded some areas, Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff told reporters. The plan for fiscal 2013 is 3.7 percent above that figure, he said.

Pension Contribution

Christie’s fiscal 2012 budget funds only 14 percent of the pension payment recommended by actuaries, Fitch said in a Jan. 31 report. Demands will rise if the state misses its 8.25 percent assumed return on investments, the company said.

The pension funds, with $67.2 billion of assets, returned 1.7 percent last year. They have an annualized 10-year return of 5.1 percent, according to treasury reports last month.

The state’s estimated pension-funding deficit fell to $36.3 billion from $53.9 billion after Christie signed bills in June that raised pension and health-care expenses, increased the minimum retirement age for new employees to 65 from 62 and froze cost-of-living increases. The gap then swelled $5.5 billion to $41.8 billion for the 12 months through June after Christie skipped a pension payment.

A 2010 law required the state to phase in full payments over seven years after a decade of lapsed funding. Christie this year budgeted $484 million for a payment. Actuaries recommended the state put in $3 billion.

‘Financial Future’

The liability will continue to grow because of the failure to make full contributions until fiscal 2018, Fitch said. The company rates New Jersey’s general-obligation debt AA-, its fourth-highest grade.

The pension payment represents 3.42 percent of the total budget this year, Christie said in his speech.

“My proposal of $1.1 billion for pensioners in this state reinforces my commitment to the security and financial future of all public workers,” he said. “Stand with me on this commitment. Let us live up to our word.”

Christie said last month that he wanted to boost funding to “shortchanged” middle-class schools. He said his budget would redirect allocations that now send 63 percent of funding to the 31 poorest districts. The state’s highest court last year ordered Christie to increase aid to those systems, known as Abbott districts.

School Plan

New Jersey spends about a third of its budget on public schools, averaging $17,700 a year for each student, and yet 100,000 children are trapped in failing institutions, Christie has said. He has proposed changes to tenure, linking teacher pay to performance and allowing privately funded vouchers for students in poor families.

Christie proposed school aid of $8.8 billion in his budget, which he said is a “record level of investment” by the state.

“The opportunity to get a great education should not be a function of the zip code you live in -- it should be a hallmark of growing up in New Jersey,” Christie said.

Even with the 10 percent income-tax cut, rates in many brackets will be higher than those in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, he said.

“We need to reverse our competitive disadvantage,” Christie said. “In the mid-Atlantic region, New Jersey needs to be the best home for growth.”

Democrats say a family with a $50,000 annual income would pay $80 less in taxes under Christie’s plan, while someone earning $1 million would save $7,200.

While 52 percent of registered voters support the income-tax cut, 76 percent would prefer reducing property taxes first, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released today. New Jersey’s property taxes, the highest in the nation, rose 2.4 percent on average to $7,759 in 2011, according to state data.

Voters overestimate how much money they would receive from Christie’s tax cut, the poll found. Thirty-five percent think a 10 percent tax cut would save them more than $500, while a household would have to earn more than $150,000 to save that much. Only 14 percent of voters report incomes over $150,000.

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