June 27th, 2011 | Published in NJPP Blog: As a Matter of Fact …
Democrats have done an unexpected thing. With just days to go before a budget must be enacted, they have introduced their own budget – a “this is what we stand for” budget – with a companion millionaires’ tax to restore at least some of the Christie administration’s proposed program cuts.
That they did this shouldn’t be a surprise.
It’s common practice for the party that controls the Legislature to draft and sponsor the state budget. The Democrats control both houses just as they did last year.
But last year the majority party ceded budget power to the Republican minority, who produced a bill that closely resembled Governor Christie’s March 2010 proposal. Many expected the same to happen this year, so it’s somewhat surprising Democratic leaders have proposed a spending plan of their own.
Here’s what is being proposed [The actual list of changes has not been posted publicly although the press has been briefed and Senate President Sweeney’s office confirmed details]:
$913 million from higher than expected revenue estimates: In March 2011, Governor Christie’s proposed budget planned to spend $29.4 billion in FY 2012. In May, when revenue projections were updated, the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) estimated that collections for the current year and next would be $913 million more than the Governor’s original March estimate. The estimate assumed the current tax structure would remain the same.
$550 million from the reintroduction of the millionaires’ tax: Last year, the legislature passed a millionaires’ tax bill that increased taxes on taxpayers with incomes over $1 million. Governor Christie vetoed the bill. The legislature could not override the veto. In this year’s bill, the additional tax revenue would be tied to additional aid for wealthier suburban schools. Part of the logic is that Republican legislators might be willing to vote for a bill to raise income tax rates on their wealthier constituents if that additional revenue stays in the wealthier school districts.
$300 million in funding shifts from programs that have unused balances: Not all programs spend their entire appropriation every year. Unspent funds either lapse and become unavailable to the program or they rollover and become part of the same program’s spending in the following year. This year the legislature has determined that $300 million is available to be cut from programs that have been over-funded in the past and added to programs that need additional support.
AMONG THE DEMOCRATS’ PRIORITIES
School Aid: The democrats’ bill would add at least $1.1 billion to school spending. Senator Sweeney said this includes the Supreme Court-mandated $500 million for the state’s poorest, urban districts and $600 million for defunded suburban school districts. Something to keep in mind is that the original Millionaires tax enacted in 2004 was tied to property tax relief for senior citizens. That connection made the bill palatable to some Republican legislators who represented senior citizens who would benefit from the property tax relief but would not be subject to the higher tax rates.
Property Tax Relief: It is said the bill would double Homestead Property Tax Rebates – not triple them as Christie said he would do.
Money not spent on the Homestead Property Tax Rebates would be used to unfreeze the Senior Freeze program, allowing new seniors to participate and raising the amount rebated. This program freezes property taxes for people over 65 who earn less than $80,000. In the current fiscal year, only seniors already in the program were eligible for the rebate and the amount was limited to the amount received in the prior year.
It is said an additional $50 million would be made available to communities with understaffed fire and police departments – aiding Newark, Camden and other communities with high crime rates.
Health Care: It is said the bill would restore $7.5 million in ideological cuts to women’s health clinics and $300 million for NJ FamilyCare and Medicaid to allow working parents to continue to obtain affordable health care coverage.
WILL THIS WORK?
By law, New Jersey must pass a budget by the end of the day on Thursday, June 30th. Passing a budget on time is a deadline the state has always taken seriously.
It is impossible to know now how the negotiations are going – if the Democrats will be successful in their attempt to share the sacrifice among all income groups and help the poor and middle class in this state. The governor vetoed a millionaires’ tax last year and has said he will veto it again. It seems unlikely Republicans would join Democrats to over-ride the governor’s veto, especially in an election year, although redistricting has left some Republicans in more Democratic districts.
In battles of the budget, the New Jersey governor holds most of the cards. He alone has the power to determine revenues and set the limit on funds available for programs. If Governor Christie doesn’t agree the state will collect an additional $800 million next year or if he vetoes the Millionaires’ tax and the legislature can’t over ride the veto, that’s money the legislature can’t spend. In addition, New Jersey’s governor has line-item veto power. Any program he doesn’t want funded can be reduced or eliminated. If this happens, the legislature’s only recourse is to override that veto if two-thirds of the legislators support the override.
The only successful override of a governor’s veto was in 1992. Governor Florio vetoed the entire budget passed by the then Republican-controlled legislature. The Republican budget had cut $1.1 billion from Governor Florio’s proposed $15.7 billion budget. At the time, the Republicans had a 27-to-13 majority in the Senate and a 58-to-22 majority in the Assembly. The override passed both houses with no votes to spare. (It was opposed by all Democrats and, in the Assembly, two Republicans.
Democrats now have a 24-to-16 majority in the Senate and a 47-to-33 majority in the Assembly, making veto overrides more difficult. So far none have been successful. Perhaps it will be this budget – this statement of what New Jersey ought to stand for – that will be the first success.