|7-1-11 In the News - Budget for FY'12 is done - as expected,Governor 'line item vetos' approx. $900M |
Gov. Chris Christie yesterday wielded his veto pen to carve out close to a billion dollars -- including the bulk of new school aid -- from the Democrats’ spending plan approved the day before. He then signed the $29.7 billion state budget for the fiscal year starting today.
As expected, he also flatly vetoed the Democrats’ proposed millionaire’s tax, which was contained in a separate bill that even its sponsors didn’t think would survive.
While the governor's signature ended the 11th hour drama as to whether the state government might shut down, his aggressive line-item vetoes hardly brought peace to the Democratic-led legislature.
Gone was any of the good will of just two days ago when Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) stood together to sign landmark pension and health benefit bills.
"This is the most disappointing day since I’ve been in the legislature," Sweeney said in a press conference following Christie’s late-afternoon budget announcement. Sweeney, who said he had not spoken with Christie, would not say for sure if the Democrats would seek to override any of the cuts. But Sweeney sounded like someone preparing for yet another battle.
"This budget is cruel and mean-spirited and only to prove a point that he’s in charge," Sweeney said. "But we will fight back."
The Senate is expected back in Trenton next week, likely Thursday, and Sweeney said he would speak with other legislative leaders first before deciding next steps.
Restoring the Budget
Christie’s line-item vetoes -- more than 110 in all from the main budget bill -- essentially restored the budget that the Republican governor had proposed three months before -- save a few key exceptions.
A big one was $447 million ordered by the state Supreme Court in the latest Abbott v. Burke ruling for 31 high-poverty school districts, an addition that Christie renounced but did not resist. He also saved $150 million in additional aid to school districts across the state, essentially restoring another fifth of the 5 percent he had cut last year. He had already proposed an increase of $250 million.
But the cuts were more notable. He rejected the Democrats proposal to restore all of his 2010 cuts to schools, not to mention a host of other projects and programs. He again vetoed an additional $7.5 million for women’s healthcare centers. He took out $50 million in new public safety funds for high-crime cities and towns. And he rejected a reinstatement of the earned income tax credit he cut this year. An additional $3 million for after-school programs was zeroed out, as was even a few hundred thousand for salaries and wages in the Assembly and Senate’s own staff.
"I will not give in to their tax-and-spend agenda, no matter how many times they and their special interests try to demagogue me to do so," Christie said.
In what is sure to be a contentious move that saves about $9 million, he also vetoed a line item that would have prevented reductions in Medicaid eligibility to exclude families making more than $5,000. Cuts to the Democrats' budget for Health and Human Services were among the steepest, coming to more than $100 million in all.
Some cuts were very precise, including just a word or two in the Democrats’ budget bill that changed the whole meaning of the appropriation.
The Medicaid veto was a case in point, where the governor's team eliminated a handful of key words -- like "not," "all," and "any" -- to entirely reverse the Democrat's intentions. For example, Christie turned a clause that was intended to block new co-pays, stave off a cap on federal funding, and prevent reductions in eligibility into language that mirrored his own ideas for Medicaid reform.
Unconstitutional and Unbiased
Many of Christie's arguments yesterday were on how the Democrats’ estimates of both revenues and potential savings exceeded his own, leaving a wide gap that he said would have led to an "unconstitutional and unbalanced" budget.
"Simply put, they made up [the numbers] so they could spend it,” he said. "You can’t do that in your own house, and I won’t allow it in the Statehouse,” he added.
The school aid vetoes took the budget back to much of the language he had first proposed. This did away with the Democrats’ efforts to steer the bulk of an additional $600 million in aid to 215 suburban districts currently underfunded. The close to $90 million left would be parceled out to the remainder of the districts.
Instead, Christie agreed to $150 million more than his original proposal but spread evenly across all non-Abbott districts, each getting an amount roughly equal to another 1 percent of its overall budgets.
He maintained that the new money amounted to a full restoration of the state funding that was cut from the year before, and then some. But it was a semantic point, since districts are still well below what they received previously due to the loss of federal stimulus funds to the state.
And the new money will likely come with some strings, as the governor said he would instruct his administration to provide "very precise advice" as to districts in how to spend the money, including putting off major new expenses to the following year. He pointed out that districts had already struck their own budgets and prepared their tax bills.
"I want very precise guidance and not have it that the money is just lost in the ether," he said.
However, Christie said he was unlikely to have the authority to put much restriction on Abbott districts, given the court's edict that they receive full funding under the state's school finance law. Some of the districts will see as much as 20 percent to 30 percent increases in their aid, including more than $80 million in additional funds to Elizabeth.
"That’s a different story," he said. "It is mandated by the court to utilize, and my ability to put guidance on that is on less than firm legal ground. . . I’ll let sleeping dogs lie."
Politickernj.com - Christie signs $29.7B budget, line-item vetoes Democratic restorations
By Timothy J. Carroll | June 30th, 2011 - 5:08pm
TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie passed a roughly $29.7 billion budget today, using his powerful line item veto to redline nearly $900 million in spending for women’s health, police and fire, and property tax relief for seniors and disabled from the plan passed this week by the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Christie called the spending plan proposed by the majority party “unconstitutional" because it used what he said were vastly inflated revenue numbers and gimmicks to come up with about $1.2 billion more in spending than the governor proposed in March.
“I have aggressively used the line-item veto and absolute veto in this budget and accompanying bills,” Christie said. “This year, unfortunately, the Democratic legislature decided it is time to go back to the future,” spending on “auto-pilot.”
The governor removed $500 million in funding for suburban and low-performing school districts but left in $447 million earmarked for the so-called Abbott Districts as the result of a recent Supreme Court decision.
Christie said the revenue figures used by the Dmeocrats to justify their spending were a "fantasy."
“They just made it up so they can spend it,” he said. “You can’t do that in your house, and I won’t allow it to happen at the Statehouse.”
Christie also vetoed a separate bill that would have instituted a tax on incomes over $1 million, as well as the accompanying school funding bill that put money back into the education system statewide.
“My budget flatly refuses to raise taxes on businesses and individuals,” he said. “The Democrats will criticize us for not raising taxes, but they had their chance at the helm of our economy for 15 years.”
Christie said 71 percent of the residents affected by the millionaire’s tax are small business owners, a number the administration got from tax returns listing some amount of personal business incomes. But the 12,269 qualifying returns reported only some amount of personal business income, abd are not identified in any way as small business owners.
While Christie said that is not the picture of “golf courses and Lear jets” that the Legislature painted, the millionaires taxed under the Democrats' bill are “trying to establish and create jobs in New Jersey.”
“I don’t think all Democrats are in favor of this, even though they all voted for it,” he said of the surtax. “The last thing they want to do is start driving people out of this state.”
His staff worked tirelessly to cut “over $1.3 billion in spending, and to do so in a responsible manner,” he said. “This is not something I relish doing; it’s my constitutional responsibility.” He said he vetoed public safety grants, women’s health funding, and other appropriations because, simply, “We can’t afford it.” Speaking about Democratic expectations of a lawsuit settlement that would fund the police and fire grants, he said, “The money they found in the cushions of the couch, I looked, it’s not there.”
His offer to triple the property tax homestead credit went unfulfilled due to two things, he said: reduced savings from reforms and increased school spending care of the Supreme Court. “They passed their appropriations bill,” he said. “Barry Albin signed it.”
The Democrats wrote nearly $365 million in revenue into the budget that the administration did not certify, and included $190 million in surplus that Christie removed. They also inserted $300 million that Christie initially put in his budget from savings achieved with pension and benefits reform, even though new estimates project closer to $10 million in savings. Christie cut $900 million from the Democrats' budget and vetoed another $400 million.
As far as language restricting the governor’s $300 million Medicaid waiver, he said, “We got around that just fine.”
The governor's budget continues the plan to close the Vineland Developmental Center, reversing a Democratic plan to keep it open.
Christie also used the red pen to slash some items below where he had funded them in March, leading some to say the governor's veto was vindictive. Among the line items cut were spending and salaries in both the senate and the assembly staff office where he cuty more than $3.6 million.
Christie also cut transitional aid used for distressed cities such as Trenton, dropping the funding from $139 million to just $10 million.
Among the other Democratic initiatives that did not appear in the final budget was the senior and disabled property tax freeze ($61 million), municipal public safety aid grants ($50 million), nursing home recipients for medical assistance ($25 million), tuition aid grants ($46 million), Urban Enterprise Zones ($47 million), Legal Servcies ($10 million) and family planning services ($7.5 million).
Thousands of students getting free or reduced-cost school lunches may not be eligible for the program, a report released by the state auditor this week finds. But school districts have little incentive to question applications because a higher participation rate also increases their state aid, the report states.
As a result, the state auditor has recommended that the state stop using the school lunch program enrollment to calculate how the aid is distributed.
“There is a significant error rate,” state auditor Stephen M. Eells said of the school lunch database. “It’s not accurate by a long shot, and I don’t think we should be using it to determine state aid.”
The 428,000 students in the free meal program in 2010 would generate about $2 billion in extra “at-risk” state aid under the state school funding formula, which provides an extra $4,700 to $5,700 per student in the program.
Some state legislators are using the report to push for an overhaul of the school funding law.
“We are talking about millions of dollars in school aid, and if it’s based on faulty information, we should know that,” said state Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, Hunterdon, whose “Fair School Funding Plan” calls for a formula that would essentially provide the same amount of state aid for every child in the state, no matter where they lived.
But advocates for children say participation in the school lunch program, while not perfect, is the most effective method available for determining the number of low-income children in a school district who need extra help.
“If anything, studies show that the lunch program undercounts the actual number of students who are poor because some never apply, especially at the high school level,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which has represented students in the state’s poorest school districts.
The state auditor reviewed the state’s participation in the National School Lunch Program, which is operated through the state Department of Agriculture. The audit report notes that local school districts are running the program within the guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those guidelines require that districts verify just 3 percent of applications each year, although they are expected to target those that appear closest to the income cutoff.
“The (districts) are doing what they are asked to do,” Eells said. “They do a good job with the 3 percent they are required to check. But there are a lot more outside of that.”
School lunch program income limits are more generous than the national poverty level. A family can make as much as 185 percent of the poverty level to qualify for the reduced-cost school lunch. For 2011-12, the income limit for a family of four will be $29,055 for the free meal program and $41,348 for the reduced-cost meal.
The state audit says that in 2009-10, districts statewide found that 44 percent of those verified were no longer deemed eligible for either free or reduced-fee lunches. Taking into account families that reapplied, at least 37 percent were deemed ineligible, mostly because the applicants failed to respond to requests for supporting documents.
The state auditor’s office did its own random sampling in 10 districts and found status changes for 23 percent of applicants. Another 24 percent did not provide Social Security numbers, so they could not be verified. The application does not require proof of income or household size, and Eells said it is very difficult to verify how many people are actually living in a household.
Eells said the state has toughened the application process for other state programs, such as Family Care, and could do something similar for determining state aid to schools. He said that while urban districts have proportionally higher enrollment in the school lunch program, the verification process is a problem statewide.
“I’m not saying, ‘Don’t provide state funding,’” he said. “I’m just saying with the significant error rate we should be discussing how we do it.”
Nancy Perella, spokeswoman for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, urged state officials to be cautious in how they proceed.
“I understand we don’t want to fund students or districts that don’t need it,” she said. “But what can you do instead that won’t hurt children? No data set is perfect, and (the auditor) has a valid point. But this is the best data we have right now.”
Children in families that participate in other state subsidy programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are automatically eligible for the school lunch program and account for about 25 percent of all students in the program, the state audit finds.
Jean Daniels, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said there was a huge discussion of the verification process when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which includes the school lunch program, was reauthorized in December 2010, but ultimately Congress decided to maintain the 3 percent verification rate.
“There were compelling arguments from districts about handling the administrative paperwork,” Daniels said.
The National School Lunch Program is considered a “high error”program by the federal government, which found that in 2009 about $1.5 billion of almost $9 billion in funds — or more than 16 percent — paid to the program were considered improper.
Daniels said the program is difficult to track since family status may change during the year based on their employment status.
“Verification is for an entire school year, but family circumstances change,” she said.
Daniels said all parties are concerned about improving the integrity of the program, while also maintaining access and not punishing children who are hungry.
“We would tend to err on the side of giving a child a meal,” she said. “It is a difficult balance, especially in these economic times.”
Contact Diane D'Amico: 609-272-7241 DDamico@pressofac.com
Associated Press-Courier Post- NJN fades into history after 40 years of service
Jul 1, 2011 | Written by Geoff Mulvihill
If election night was the World Series for the New Jersey Network, the state-owned public television network, the annual state government budget debates were the playoffs.
But in its last two days on the air this week, the network ignored the drama at the State House as the 130 remaining employees packed up their belongings, shared hugs and tears, took pictures and worried whether they would see each other only on Facebook.
The station, launched 40 years ago by lawmakers who felt neglected by Philadelphia and New York television news, was closed Thursday by politicians, including Gov. Chris Christie, who believe the state has no business in the broadcasting business.
New York's public TV station, WNET, will run the station, renamed NJTV. The new station will broadcast 20 hours a week of New Jersey-centric broadcasting, half of which will be provided by the Caucus Educational Corp., headed by Steve Adubato Jr., the son of a political power broker in Newark.
Viewers will still have public-TV staples from "Dinosaur Train" to Charlie Rose, although the schedules might be different.
The big difference will be in the news programming.
Some 20,000 people tuned in to NJN's nightly newscast. Its wall-to-wall election-night coverage, featuring reports from campaign headquarters and panels of experts, along with "Reporters Roundtable," were main courses in the media diet of the subgroup of New Jerseyans obsessed with state politics.
And the network was known for ratcheting up coverage during weeks like this one, when political intrigue runs high as lawmakers hold marathon sessions to set the state's budget.
Even Thursday evening, as anchor Jim Hooker was polishing his final script for the station and straightening his tie, the newsroom was getting calls from other television stations: Would the governor's news conference -- the one where he would sign the budget and avert a government shutdown -- be aired live? The answer: of course not.
News director Michael Aron, who worked at the station for 29 years, said he intended to cover Wednesday's legislative budget debates but was persuaded not to. One staffer, he said, told him: "Don't make us stand there for 12 hours listening to the people who did us in."
NJTV promises to continue live broadcasts of major State House events, including the governor's budget addresses and State of the State speeches, and live election night coverage.
The network's end was months in the making, but it was only Tuesday that the Democratic lawmakers who were trying to salvage the operation finally failed.
Some current NJN employers could go to NJTV, which takes the mantle as the only statewide news broadcaster.
Some, like Joe Martin, an engineer who came to NJN in 1972 -- just seven months after it launched -- will retire.
Many, like Judy Goetz, an executive assistant who first worked for the station when it launched -- and she was still in high school -- are looking for work.
One, Michell Basalik, an associate producer battling breast cancer, learned Friday that she was getting another job with the state government that will allow her to keep her health insurance and use the sick time her NJN colleagues have donated to her.
Among the uncertainties: what will become of the library of films, videotapes and DVDs of decades of newscasts.
Thursday evening, instead of covering the day's news of New Jersey, the network ran a montage about itself and its history of reporting on topics from political corruption trials to devastating floods to a Little League championship team. In the audio room during the montage, employees got their biggest laugh at a clip of Christie saying he was watching a legislative proceeding on NJN.
Aron proclaimed on air: "That's it for NJN news. They say all good things come to an end, and they do."
The video cut to dimming lights in an empty newsroom.
And like a more famous New Jersey-based show, the picture faded to black.
Garden State Coalition of Schools