TRENTON - A budget season that began with bold declarations of ideology and promises of high drama appears headed toward a relatively quiet resolution, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreeing there simply isn't much money to fight over.
Republican and Democratic legislators said this week the budget will not vary significantly from the $29.3 billion spending plan proposed by Republican Gov. Christie in March.
"The budget is going to be very close, over 99 percent identical to what the governor proposed in March," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union).
Lawmakers are aiming to finish the budget with time to spare. Some said they hope to send a budget to the governor by June 24, about a week before the constitutional deadline of June 30.
Democrats, who are the majority party in both houses of the Legislature, took the unusual step of proposing that Republicans sponsor the appropriations legislation, and they agreed to do so.
"This will be a Republican budget," said Senate Budget and Appropriations Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen). "They will have complete ownership of this budget."
Sarlo said his Democratic colleagues will supply the Republicans with the minimum number of votes needed to pass the budget and prevent a shutdown of state government. If all the Republican legislators vote for the bill, they would need the votes of eight Democrats in the Assembly and four in the Senate.
Republicans are happy to take the lead on the budget, said Assemblyman Joseph R. Malone III of Burlington County, the Republican Budget Officer.
"I am very proud to stand with this governor," Malone said. "I know he's making very difficult decisions, I know he's making some groups angry, but that's the price of leadership."
Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University, said that after failing to pass the "millionaires tax," Democrats don't want to go near the governor's budget.
Politically, it makes sense for the Democrats to distance themselves from Christie's budget, Murray said. But "whether this is good for government, for the state of New Jersey, that they can't get together and compromise, I think it's somewhat disingenuous for the Democrats to play this game."
"This is the kind of political calculations that really turn off people at the end of the day," Murray said. "It's going to work in their favor, but it's not the best way to run a government."
Christie's budget reduces spending across just about every area of government to close a deficit of about $11 billion. His proposal would suspend property tax rebates for a year to save $850 million and skip $3 billion in payments to pension plans for public employees. Schools would lose $819 million, in large part because more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds used last year will not be repeated, and municipalities would lose $46 million in state aid.
Democrats still hope to tinker around the edges of Christie's spending plan, although any hopes of reviving the "millionaires tax," which at one point was the rallying cry for the majority party, appear all but dead.
The tax would have increased the tax rate on income above $1 million from 8.97 percent to 10.75 percent. Democrats said they would use the revenue from the tax to restore property tax rebates to 600,000 senior citizens and disabled residents.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Thursday that both houses were working together to come up with proposals to present to the governor.
Sarlo said Democrats hope to restore funding to areas including transportation for private schools, family planning, legal services, and sheltered workshops for people with developmental disabilities. Sarlo said Democrats would propose additional budget cuts to balance out any additional costs, but declined to say where the cuts may come from.
This budget is an extraordinarily painful one for lawmakers of both parties, said Senator Kevin J. O'Toole (R., Bergen).
"We've never seen a budget deficit like the one we're dealing with this year. Nobody's happy with it - the governor, Republicans, Democrats - but we'll turn the page and hopefully, revenues will pick up, create some jobs, and there will be rosier projections next year," he said.
The Treasury Department released its latest revenue figures Thursday indicating that in April and May, revenues from income tax collections fell $2.4 billion, or 9.9 percent, below projections. For the year to date, income tax collections are 2.2 percent below revised forecasts, sales tax 0.9 percent below, and corporate business tax 5.3 percent below.