For years, New Jersey's unemployment trust fund was used as a piggy bank.
Workers and companies paid into the program, and governors and lawmakers helped themselves to $4.7 billion of the fund to pay for other state spending.
When the economy tanked and unemployment spiked, the fund was so depleted that an automatic tax increase loomed. Gov. Corzine had to plow $260 million into the program last year, and roughly $480 million more in state and federal dollars is needed this year to avoid the business tax hike.
The fund has become a symbol of the long-term consequences of short-term fixes.
Facing those consequences, along with plummeting revenues, Corzine plans to replenish the oft-raided unemployment fund, in part by raiding $50 million from the state's disability program.
Governors have taken $598 million from that program since 1994, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
Corzine's latest withdrawal is one part of a plan to tap $1.3 billion from various surpluses and trust funds to help fill a $3.6 billion hole in this year's budget.
Administration officials say the disability program and other targeted funds have enough money to meet demands.
But raiding the surplus is the kind of move Corzine criticized when he came into office with a pledge to restore fiscal responsibility. In the face of an extraordinary decline in state revenue, however, Corzine has turned to some of the very practices he blamed for creating New Jersey's financial mess.
By using up surplus money, for example, Corzine will leave the state with just $150 million in reserve to navigate the rest of this rocky fiscal year.
And after making the first significant pension contributions in years, he is cutting back this year's planned payment, and is proposing to let towns take a pension holiday that will add to the retirement fund's shortfall.
Corzine, facing ugly choices all around, appears uncomfortable with some of the moves. In particular he called the pension deferral "bad long-term fiscal policy," but he said the alternative is worse: tax hikes when the economy is floundering.
The only other option to balance the budget would be cuts even deeper than the $1.3 billion Corzine has pared from the $32.9 billion budget signed last June. That budget itself was down $600 million from the previous year.
The plans he has made in the face of this year's economic crisis are departures from recent years, when he has ramped up funding for the state's long-term pension fund and drastically cut the use of "one-time" infusions from account surpluses.
"Gov. Corzine has taken unprecedented steps to ensure New Jersey's fiscal stability. Since Gov. Corzine took office three years ago, the state contributed more to the pension system than it did over the past 23 years combined," Corzine spokesman Sean Darcy said in an e-mail.
To Republicans, however, Corzine is now turning to "gimmicks" that he derided when he came into office. Assemblyman Joseph Malone, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, contrasted Corzine's new plan with the governor's message during his first months in office, when he insisted the time of "kicking the can down the road" was over and tough choices were needed.
"The tip of his shoe is wore out from kicking the can down the street," said Malone, of Burlington County.
Corzine is not alone among state leaders grasping for ways to get through the crisis. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 12 states tapped rainy day funds by the end of November and others were delaying payments on employee benefits. Some cut back on higher education spending, Medicaid and hiring.
Richard Keevey, a former New Jersey budget director, said that this late in the fiscal year, Corzine has few options because much of the money is spent.
"You might phrase it as 'desperate folks do desperate things,' and we are in a desperate situation," said Keevey, now director of the Policy Research Institute for the Region at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.
The $3.6 billion budget hole, which includes $2.8 billion from falling revenues, equals 11 percent of the original 2008-2009 budget.
Corzine, who took $125 million from the disability fund in his first two budgets, is eyeing it again to help close the gap.
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has proposed a bill aimed at barring raids on worker benefit programs. But he was sympathetic to Corzine's plight.
"It's something I really don't want to do, but there's not a whole lot of options," Sweeney said.
The disability program pays up to 26 weeks of benefits for people who can't work. It pays up to two-thirds of a person's salary, with a maximum of $546 per week.
After the latest withdrawal, the disability fund would be left with about $250 million at the end of the fiscal year. Last year it paid $462 million in benefits and collected $594 million in taxes and other fees, according to Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Labor.
Companies pay in, as do workers, who contribute a maximum of $144.50 per year from their paychecks. Like the unemployment fund, taxes could rise if the reserve sinks too low.
"We don't expect the fund to fall that low with this transfer," Smith said. He added that while unemployment claims spike during bad economic times, the disability claims remain fairly steady.
Speaking in general about the money being withdrawn from various funds, Treasurer David Rousseau said Tuesday, "The core missions of these programs wouldn't be hindered."
Republicans, however, argue that Corzine should have cut more spending rather than tapping surpluses. They recommended cuts that focus largely on reducing aid to cities and urban schools.
Asked about pulling from the disability program again, Malone said, "If we don't stop doing these things and if we don't learn from our lessons, we're going to be in a world of hurt."