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Lawmakers put finishing touches on budget plan

New Jersey lawmakers expected to introduce a new state budget late tonight in the hope of approving the spending plan next week.

New Jersey lawmakers expected to introduce a new state budget late tonight in the hope of approving the spending plan next week.

Details of the bill were not expected to be available until late in the night or early tomorrow, at the earliest, but lawmakers have said any final budget would closely resemble the plan that Gov. Corzine introduced in March and that has been discussed for months.

His $28.6 billion proposal included eliminating property-tax rebates for everyone but senior citizens, along with many other spending cuts. Taxes would rise on cigarettes and alcohol, except beer, insurance companies, and incomes of $400,000 and more. The plan counts on more than $2 billion in federal stimulus aid.

While there are weeks left before the June 30 deadline, lawmakers are eager to put the grim recession-year budget behind them and hope for votes on the plan Monday and Thursday.

One change expected to ease some of the plan's pain would eliminate proposed co-pays on Medicaid prescriptions and AIDS medicine provided through a state program. Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden) said that shift had been made after discussions among lawmakers.

The change would offset cuts expected to save the state $6 million, a relatively small amount, but would take on an issue fraught with symbolism and emotion and, advocates for the poor say, real hardship for people with low incomes.

A key element of the budget, however, is pending: a Communications Workers of America vote on the labor deal it worked out with the Corzine administration last week. The plan is expected to save the state around $325 million in the new budget, helping to balance the plan, but some local CWA leaders are urging members to reject the deal. Without those savings, Corzine would have to find other savings and has threatened to turn to layoffs.

Statehouse aides were still working on the bill at 7:45 last night. Senate Democrats spent much of the day trying to iron out several details, including a funding change that could help some hospitals and hurt others, and proposed tuition caps on public colleges.

Senate Democratic spokesman Matthew Reilly said a bill was expected to be introduced tonight. Roberts had said the Assembly would also introduce a plan today.

Democrats in the Assembly and Senate and administration officials all said any budget changes related to relatively small pieces of the overall plan.

Roberts, early today, said "the finishing touches" were being put on the budget that begins July 1.

"There's been broad agreement in terms of the major elements of the budget and now it's just the fine tuning," Roberts said.

But the disputes that remained were enough to cause daylong negotiations in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 23-17 majority, and some lawmakers objected to some of the spending cuts.

Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office, were hopeful that Senate and Assembly committees could vote on the bill Monday and that the full houses would approve the plan Thursday.

Democrats in recent days had predicted smooth sailing during a difficult budget year, saying there was no money left for lawmakers to fight over.

Under Corzine's plan, likely to be unchanged by the Senate and Assembly, there would be three new tax brackets with higher rates: $400,000 to $500,000; $501,000 to $1 million, and more than $1 million. At the highest level, taxes would rise to 10.75 percent, from 8.97 percent.

Roberts said the changes would affect 1 percent of New Jersey tax filers.