Democrats convene on N.J. budget priorities
Senators met to identify what to pursue in talks with Christie. A looming issue: Aid to the poorest schools.
TRENTON - Senate Democrats wrapped up a 90-minute private session Thursday on the proposed state budget without identifying any of the funding priorities they'll pursue in deliberations with Republican Gov. Christie.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) described the discussion as "free-flowing" and said it focused on which fiscal issues Democrats wanted to embrace in the talks. A balanced budget must be adopted this month.
"We talked on a multitude of issues that are in the budget, and not in the budget, and concerns that Democrats have an interest in, priorities that the governor hasn't identified in his budget," Sweeney said.
He said no consensus had emerged. He said he hoped to meet with Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) next week.
Democrats in both houses of the Legislature are analyzing Christie's budget proposal, and in coming weeks will stake out programs and services that they want to receive extra funding.
They'll also decide soon whether to craft their own budget proposal or tinker within the framework Christie set out in February.
Christie's $29.4 billion budget doesn't address how to pay for the additional $500 million in aid ordered by the state Supreme Court for the 31 poorest school districts.
Christie said was up to the Legislature to figure out how to comply with the court order. But he said he would veto a budget proposal that included tax increases.
The governor's original budget also didn't include $511 million in income-tax revenue the state hadn't anticipated.
Democrats who control the Legislature are likely to seek more money for programs and services identified during budget hearings held throughout the state. Those restorations could include more money for Medicaid, charity care, and after-school programs; $7.5 million for women's health clinics; $1.5 million for braille teachers; or other items.
Sweeney is advocating increased funding for all 205 school districts that are currently underfunded, not just the poorest schools. That would add about $1 billion to the budget.
Christie's budget assumes $323 million in savings that would be achieved by requiring public workers to pay more for their health insurance. Sweeney, Oliver, and the governor have been meeting this week to work out a deal, but so far none has been struck.
Democrats in the Assembly may be reluctant to move legislation making benefits more expensive for public employees while a contract with the state's largest public-sector union is being negotiated.
The union wants health care to be collectively bargained. Christie wants health-care benefits and pension changes legislated. Republicans in the Legislature support the governor's plan.