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2-26-13 Star Ledger - Gov. Christie to unveil budget plan for post-Sandy N.J.
Star Ledger - Gov. Christie to unveil budget plan for post-Sandy N.J....'TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie will release his new budget today in a Statehouse speech that is expected to tackle one of the biggest questions in New Jersey: where to find the money for a massive rebuilding effort in the wake of Hurricane Sandy...'

Star Ledger - Gov. Christie to unveil budget plan for post-Sandy N.J.

By Star-Ledger StaffThe Star-Ledger
on February 26, 2013 at 6:00 AM, updated February 26, 2013 at 7:57 AM

By Salvador Rizzo and Susan K. Livio/The Star-Ledger

TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie will release his new budget today in a Statehouse speech that is expected to tackle one of the biggest questions in New Jersey: where to find the money for a massive rebuilding effort in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Although the federal government approved a $60 billion aid package for New Jersey and other states, state lawmakers and budget experts say Trenton could still be on the hook for some of the costs.

Adding to the uncertainty, the latest fiscal stalemate in Washington — the "sequester" talks — could threaten hundreds of millions in federal funds for New Jersey if there’s no agreement by Friday.

Any unexpected costs would further strain a state budget Christie has wrestled with as expenses grow from all corners, including school funding, health coverage and infrastructure needs.

State Senate Budget Committee chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said Christie can expect bipartisan support on Sandy matters, but the rest of the budget would be business as usual.

"There are two components: What the state budget is and what the federal funding will be as far as Sandy," Sarlo said. "Clearly the money that’s coming from the federal government is not for budgetary purposes."

Christie and his aides have been guarding the budget details closely for weeks. Lawmakers said they would be briefed this morning, just hours before the speech.

For Christie, the annual budget address is the first salvo in his yearly battle with the Democratic-controlled Legislature over which programs to fund and how to pay. It takes on added meaning this election year for Christie and all 120 lawmakers.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, the Republican budget officer from hard-hit Monmouth County, agreed Christie can expect patience and cooperation on some Sandy moves such as installing independent monitors to oversee how billions in federal funds are spent.

"We had several months where economic activity was severely hampered by the storm, and we have to wait and see how it’s going to balance out," O’Scanlon said. "That’s something I know the administration is focusing on."

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Outside of Sandy, Christie faces other tough political choices:

• How to close a budget gap that reached $473 million last month. There’s little room to cut corners because Wall Street warns an unsound budget could trigger a downgrade of the state credit rating.

• The state is scheduled to contribute nearly $1.7 billion to its pension fund, and $375 million for Christie’s transportation capital plan this year. He postponed such plans before when cash ran out.

• He’s expected to announce whether he’ll expand the state Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act. A critic of the federal law, he could save up to $300 million in the coming budget if he expands the program and lets Washington absorb the cost.

"What’s at stake are billions of dollars of federal money, tens of thousands of New Jerseyans who need affordable health care and long-term savings to the state," said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate health committee.

If Christie declines, Vitale said, "shock and awe will be the response — shocked he didn’t do it and awestruck that he is that much of a nincompoop."

Bill Holland of the group Better Choices for New Jersey, a coalition of liberal and minority advocacy groups, said Monday Christie should focus on job creation. The state’s unemployment rate of 9.6 percent was the fourth-highest in the country in December.

"For the last three years Governor Christie has relied exclusively on tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, and only has New Jersey’s jobs crisis to show for it," Holland said.

Last year, the budget debate centered on a 10 percent income-tax cut Christie wanted but Democrats said the state economy was too weak to handle it. He signed a $31.7 billion spending plan without the cut.

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Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828