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N.J. Republicans present alternative budget

Republican state lawmakers want to restore property-tax rebates and municipal aid and to fund New Jersey's transportation needs - all without expanding the state budget.

Republican state lawmakers want to restore property-tax rebates and municipal aid and to fund New Jersey's transportation needs - all without expanding the state budget.

GOP leaders yesterday presented an alternative to Gov. Corzine's budget proposal they say would re-allocate $1.32 billion in spending by cutting waste and trimming funding to programs that lack accountability.

Republicans, who are the minority party in both houses of the legislature, praised Corzine for holding the line on spending by presenting a budget proposal that would trim spending from the current year.

Corzine has proposed a state budget of $32.8 billion; his latest proposal would eliminate the Departments of Commerce and Personnel, cut back state aid to municipalities, charity care and the property-tax rebate program, and reduce the state workforce by about 3,000 employees through an early-retirement program.

But the Republicans disagreed with some of the governor's priorities, saying they wanted to make New Jersey more affordable for its residents.

"This proposal is a reprioritization of state spending that provides more tax relief, a strategy to increase the share of pay-as-you-go funding for our state's transportation program, and more money to reduce the debt burden now facing our children and grandchildren," said Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce of Morris County.

Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr., of Union County, called the plan "a common-sense financial strategy to make our state more affordable, and your government more accountable to its citizens."

The Republican proposal would restore $375 million in property-tax rebates and $150 million in municipal aid, provide $500 million for transportation and allow $195 million to be restored to what they consider "unfair" cuts, which may include charity care to hospitals and co-payments for Medicaid. It would also reduce spending from the governor's proposal by $100 million.

The money would come from a variety of sources, including massive cuts to "special municipal aid," the poorly defined state grants that were the subject of criticism in a recent state auditor's report; smaller increases for former Abbott school districts; reforming the state's procedures for procuring goods and services; increasing the retirement age for many government employees from 60 to 62, and calculating a state employee's pension based on salary in the last five years of service instead of the last three.

Corzine dismissed the Republican proposal as unrealistic.

"Republicans are following in the footsteps of their predecessors by talking about spending money and restoring cuts without offering any legitimate way to pay for them," Corzine said. "This is all make-believe math. This is the same sort of gimmickry and trickery that has put the state in the fiscal mess we now find ourselves trying deal with."

Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts, Jr. (D., Camden) was less negative, but also noncommittal.

"Every item on the Republicans' list deserves to be fully vetted for feasibility and potential impact on the state's long-term bottom line," Roberts said. "Democrats and Republicans alike are committed to delivering a final budget that makes government at all levels more accountable and will make the state more affordable. No idea that potentially could help New Jersey's taxpayers will be rejected out-of-hand."

Specifically, Roberts noted that, like the Republicans, he hopes to replace "gimmicky" property-tax rebate checks with direct property-tax credits, which should be less expensive to administer.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) said he welcomed ideas, but warned they would have to be based on reality.

"We're willing to examine any proposals as long as they're realistic," Codey said. "Telling the Turnpike Authority they have to fund a multibillon-dollar widening project by tightening their belts is like telling Steve Wynn to fund his casino by collecting loose change along the A.C. Boardwalk."

According to the state constitution, the governor and the legislature must agree on a budget by July 1.

Corzine has already backed off some of his more controversial budget proposals to save money.