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Lawmakers talk of a budget deal

There has been a "broad consensus" on Gov. Corzine's spending plan, said one legislator.

TRENTON - A key lawmaker said yesterday an agreement appears near on a new state budget that could restore some money for hospitals, nursing homes, municipalities and college tuition assistance.

Assembly Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald said a "broad consensus and agreement" appears imminent on a new spending plan.

Gov. Corzine's proposed $32.8 billion budget plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1 calls for $2.9 billion in cuts, including less state aid for towns and cities, hospitals, colleges, nursing homes and property tax rebates.

Greenwald said the agreement could include more money for hospitals, nursing homes, towns and cities and tuition-assistance grants.

He said it could also eliminate a proposed prescription drug Medicaid co-payment and a proposed $100,000 household income limit on a county college scholarship program.

But he said restorations would be accompanied by alternative cuts.

"We are going to live within the projected revenues that the governor put out there," said Greenwald (D., Camden).

Greenwald declined to detail possible alternatives, though he's proposed a $25 million cut in overtime for the state Department of Human Services. The department is expected to spend $83 million this year in overtime.

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. (D., Camden) said one revenue possibility was halting the phase-out of a public-utilities tax.

"That's certainly something that we've talked about," Roberts said.

The state constitution requires a new budget be adopted by July 1.

"It's not final yet," said Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex). "We want to, hopefully, get it finalized as soon as possible."

Codey and Roberts said Corzine's plan to offer retirement incentives to 3,000 state workers remains a top concern.

The retirements would save $457 million within three years but increase pension costs by $517 million in that time, so several lawmakers want to balance that with benefit cuts for newly hired public workers and elimination of benefits for part-time workers.

Codey said they want to ensure eliminating part-timers' benefits wouldn't hurt people such as single mothers and low-wage workers.

"There still needs to be some work done on some of these bills to avoid unintended consequences," said Codey, who waived a 45-day waiting period for proposed pension and benefit bills, possibly allowing them to get hearings as soon as Thursday.

Roberts said boosting the retirement incentive eligibility age from 50 is another possibility.

"The advocates will not get everything that they propose and the governor will not get everything he sought in terms of early retirement," Roberts said. "We'll find a middle ground."

Roberts said he's hoping for a June 19 vote on the final budget plan.

Casinos closed for three days in 2006 when Corzine and legislators missed the budget deadline, but a Senate budget panel yesterday released legislation that would allow casinos and horse racing tracks to remain open during state government shutdowns.

The bill would empower casinos to police themselves in the absence of state inspectors, but would enable the governor to close a casino for serious wrongdoing.

The measure awaits final votes in both the Assembly and the Senate.

The Senate budget committee also held a public hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment requiring voter approval for state borrowing.

The hearing clears the measure for final legislative approvals. Sen. Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon), who has sought the amendment for seven years, said he hopes that can happen by June 30.