Gov. Christie's campaign last year to overhaul pension and health benefits for New Jersey's public employees hasn't come to fruition.
But the governor took action last week that could serve as a bargaining chip in his call to cut costs: He tied millions of dollars for municipalities and nonprofits in the state budget to negotiations over worker health benefits.
Christie issued an executive order placing nearly $100 million into reserve from the $34.5 billion fiscal year budget he signed into law last week. The order affects half of the transitional aid the state awards municipalities - including Camden and Atlantic City - as well as some spending the Democratic-controlled Legislature added to the budget for a host of programs, including court-appointed advocates for children in foster care, assistance to Holocaust survivors, and domestic-violence prevention.
Christie said the hold on spending was necessary because the budget lawmakers sent to him assumed $250 million in health-care savings without provisions to achieve them.
The savings were "penciled in on paper, but completely nonexistent," Christie said in a statement last week. Until savings are enacted, the governor's office said, funds will be held in reserve.
Affected organizations were trying to make sense of the situation this week. "It is politics perhaps at its worst," said Gail Belfer, director of the senior services department at Samost Jewish Family and Children's Service of Southern New Jersey, which runs a program that delivers Kosher meals-on-wheels and provides health and other aid to 80 Holocaust survivors in South Jersey.
Christie put a hold on $400,000 that the organization said would be distributed throughout the state to assist Holocaust survivors. The organization hadn't been slated to spend the money until October, so there's no immediate impact, Belfer said.
"I have very high hopes that it will indeed be resolved," she said.
In linking programs supported by lawmakers to his call for benefit cuts, "this is a move by Christie to put pressure on Democrats to cave on something that he wants," said Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University.
"I think that Chris Christie's ready to make deals and cut deals, and that's something he hasn't done in a long time," Hale said, noting, for example, the governor's efforts to tie a gas-tax hike to a sales-tax cut.
Following Christie's order last week, the six union representatives on the 12-member State Health Benefits Plan Design Committee said that they had recommended specific ideas to save hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We have a vested interest in controlling health-care costs because our members are paying a substantial portion of the premiums," the union members wrote in an open letter to the Legislature.
The letter added, "Our proposals do not pit workers against the public and make it completely clear that we should not be used as an excuse to cut services to New Jersey residents in need."
Organizations that had been grateful their funding wasn't line-item vetoed by Christie are now uncertain whether they'll receive it.
The Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Jersey, which trains and supervises volunteers to advocate for children in abuse and neglect cases, had cheered its $2 million appropriation in the budget signed by Christie, preserving an increase in recent years from $1.15 million.
But then the organization learned that $850,000 would be frozen - equivalent to the funding increase.
While the organization is still evaluating the impact, "the concern is, if the funding is not maintained, some of the children may indeed lose their volunteers," said Liza Kirschenbaum, associate director of CASA New Jersey. CASA, which gets one-third of its funding from the state, is able to serve almost 400 additional children with the funding increase from $1.15 million, Kirschenbaum said.
Christie is also withholding the full $200,000 budgeted for the Adler Aphasia Center, an organization that serves people with the language disorder caused by brain damage, typically a stroke.
Based in Bergen and Essex County, the group used $100,000 in state funds last year to expand south to Union, Somerset, Ocean, and Atlantic Counties, said Chuck Berkowitz, president of the center's board of directors. Its overall budget is more than $2 million, he said. It does not receive reimbursement through insurance and relies mostly on private donations.
"We had hoped to continue the expansion of services for people with aphasia," Berkowitz said. "We'll have to take a step back and probably not continue to expand as quickly."
Others were more circumspect. "We respect the process and we continue to monitor what's happening in Trenton," said Kris Kolluri, CEO of the Rowan University-Rutgers Camden Board of Governors, and a former state transportation commissioner under Gov. Jon Corzine. Christie is withholding $500,000 of $2.1 million in state funds budgeted for the construction of new academic buildings in Camden.
Some municipalities face uncertainty. Christie has placed half of all the transitional aid the state allocates to distressed cities in reserve. But his executive order doesn't say how much he plans to withhold from any given town.
Trenton receives about $20 million annually in transitional aid, accounting for about 10 percent of the city's budget, said business administrator Terry McEwen. The city's fiscal year began July 1. If it does not receive the full allotment it expects, "we would have to look at cuts and/or additional revenue sources," McEwen said. But he said he "would just caution people to just be patient and see what it means first."