TRENTON - New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday advanced a budget that closely tracks Gov. Christie's spending proposal, though the majority of Democrats offered tweaks for safety-net programs and other favorite initiatives.
Separately, a bipartisan plan to more than double the state's gas tax to help fund New Jersey's empty transportation fund also moved forward.
That legislative package also includes various tax cuts, including a four-year phaseout of the levy imposed on certain estates of the deceased. The state's gas tax - currently the second-lowest in the nation at 14.5 cents per gallon - would increase by 23 cents as part of a 10-year, $20 billion plan to invest in roads, bridges, rail, and other infrastructure.
Committees of both houses of the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a $34.8 billion budget, mostly along party lines, for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The state constitution requires the Legislature to pass, and the governor to sign into law, a balanced budget by June 30.
"The budget does what the budget needs to do, and that is provide opportunity, ensure the growth and expansion of the middle class, and aid in the growth of New Jersey's future - children, seniors, everyone," Assembly Budget Chairman Gary Schaer (D., Passaic) told reporters.
It includes funding for expansion of preschool education, lead testing and remediation in homes and schools, higher Medicaid rates for nursing homes, and additional charity care for the uninsured, among other things.
Christie's proposed budget, which the administration revised in May to account for a revenue shortfall, calls for $34.5 billion in spending for fiscal year 2017.
The Legislature's budget passed the Assembly Budget Committee along party lines, but two Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee voted in favor of the spending bill.
The constitution empowers Christie to veto any line item in the budget, though he may not add spending to it.
Unlike in past years, the Democratic budget does not include tax increases on millionaires and corporations that were aimed at boosting payments into the pension system.
That's largely because Christie, a Republican, said in his February budget address that he planned to contribute $1.9 billion to the pension system for public employees. While that's not as much money as lawmakers had hoped the state would contribute under a 2011 law, they considered Christie's proposal sufficient.
The Legislature's budget, which is expected to head to the floors of both houses for votes on Monday, includes a $500 million surplus, slightly less than what Christie has projected.
Christie's original February spending plan called for $34.8 billion in spending - in line with what Democrats are now proposing.
The package of transportation and tax bills also advanced, with a mix of Republican and Democratic support. Christie has threatened to veto the package, but Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has said his goal is to build a veto-proof majority for it in the Legislature.
Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) called the legislation "one of the most significant investments in the history of the state of New Jersey."
Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth), an outspoken critic of the plan, said, "I don't believe that you raise taxes to lower them."
The houses are expected to vote on the legislation next week.