TRENTON — Gov. Christie delivered his last budget address Tuesday, unveiling a $35.5 billion spending plan that was perhaps most noteworthy for what it did not include: a proposal he had pushed to dramatically redistribute school funding.
Instead, the Republican governor called on the Democratic-led Legislature to work with him to create a new funding formula, and challenged lawmakers, who have failed to reach consensus on a plan of their own, to agree on an approach within 100 days.
"No phony task forces. No stupid blue ribbon commissions," Christie said in the Assembly chamber, where he also called on the state's largest health insurer to fund addiction treatment and proposed contributing state lottery revenue to the public worker pension system.
"We get in the room starting next week, and you get this done with me," Christie told lawmakers, referring to school funding.
Christie's term ends in January 2018.
The governor's budget, up from the $34.8 billion one he proposed last year, does not incorporate his "Fairness Formula," the plan he began pushing last year that would have given each district the same amount of aid per pupil. That would have meant deep cuts in aid to the state's urban districts in exchange for property-tax relief in the suburbs.
The plan drew wide criticism and would surely have resulted in a legal challenge; New Jersey's current funding formula, which awards districts more money for students with extra needs, is rooted in decades of litigation over aid to historically poor districts.
While the 2008 formula was found constitutional by the state Supreme Court, it has never been fully funded. Meanwhile, some districts continue to receive aid awarded after the formula was passed and intended to be phased out, spurring complaints from districts that do not receive the funding.
"From the outset, this entire thing has been fantasy," Christie said Tuesday, faulting "big-government education experts" and the state's high court.
Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, said they were open to reviewing most of Christie's proposals.
"I'm glad the governor has realized his [school funding] formula wasn't fair," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) told reporters. But he disputed Christie's characterization of the current formula as a failure and said it needed to be fully funded — a position supported by the Education Law Center, which argued the Abbott v. Burke case that led to the current funding system.
"We're confident the Legislature will, in short order, reject the governor's invitation to repeal and replace the [formula] in 100 days," the center's executive director, David Sciarra, said in a statement.
Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) have clashed on school funding, but agree that the formula needs tweaks rather than an overhaul.
Asked about Christie's threat to "act alone" on school funding absent a compromise, Sweeney said, "I don't know what it means."
Christie's budget includes $9.2 billion in direct aid to schools, essentially flat from last year's funding. No district would receive less aid than it did last year, according to the state treasurer.
Christie, whose approval ratings have sunk to the high teens, presented himself as a bulwark against misguided liberal politics despite the state's unresolved fiscal challenges.
Describing the "cold and dark days" the state faced when he took office in 2010, Christie returned to familiar talking points — a smaller state government and the 2 percent cap he and lawmakers imposed on property taxes during his first term — as he claimed "we have slayed the ghosts of fiscal irresponsibility that haunted this house" then.
His administration has "done more for the solvency and stability" of New Jersey's public-worker pension system than any governor, Christie said, "despite all the empty rhetoric to the contrary." While the $2.5 billion payment Christie is proposing is up from the $1.9 billion projected in the current fiscal year, it would be just half what actuaries say is needed to fund the system properly.
Christie also proposed allocating an unspecified amount of lottery revenue to the pension system.
Transferring that asset, he said, would increase the funded proportion of the pension system from 49 percent to 64 percent and reduce how much the state has to contribute to the system every year out of the general fund.
The governor's office declined to provide data or information to support this claim, saying only that Christie "said he would be meeting shortly with stakeholders before getting into further details."
The New Jersey Constitution says state lottery proceeds "shall be for state institutions and state aid for education."
The lottery contributes about $950 million annually to the general fund. Under state law, that money is dedicated to such programs as school nutrition, tuition aid grants, services for the developmentally disabled, and homes for disabled soldiers.
A Treasury Department spokesman said the proposal "anticipates legislative changes to existing law."
"I see a little bit of smoke and mirrors to try to lower a [pension] payment," Prieto said of Christie's proposal. Sweeney said he and his staff had not had time to review it.
The New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, was more blunt in its criticism: "Gov. Christie is shirking leadership and whistling past our state's fiscal graveyard, acknowledging a piece of our pension crisis, but ignoring the need for reform."
The group also criticized a proposal Christie announced Tuesday to create a drug treatment fund paid for by the nonprofit Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield New Jersey's surplus, calling the plan emblematic of the "Band-Aids and budget gimmicks" that "have come to define the Christie administration."
Calling for a permanent fund for "the population that needs to gain even greater access to inpatient and outpatient drug rehabilitation treatment," Christie said, "I am confident Horizon will embrace this opportunity." Some in the chamber laughed, and Christie responded: "So cynical."
Horizon said in a statement that it was "always willing to partner with New Jersey," but that "raiding the reserves that protect the families we insure, including our Medicaid members, will only make insurance more expensive and less secure."
The proposal also drew criticism from the left-leaning New Jersey Policy Perspective, calling it "absolutely the worst time for the state to raid funds from Horizon."
"The likely repeal of the Affordable Care Act would create a health-care crisis, and the possible loss of all health coverage for about 800,000 New Jerseyans," senior policy analyst Ray Castro said in a statement. "Horizon, as the state's largest insurer and the only nonprofit, would have an especially important role in helping the newly uninsured."
The governor's budget proposal does not anticipate changes to the health-care law or any other federal policy. Christie's treasurer, Ford Scudder, said Tuesday that it was too soon to react to possible changes.