Update on the state’s budget

This overview of the state budget appeared in Sunday’s Asbury Park Press.

Revised state budget creates winners and losers
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/17/07
BY JONATHAN TAMARI
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON — YMCAs got their wish. Hospitals got most of theirs, and so did New Jersey’s cancer treatment centers. Charter schools and nine struggling school districts saw a boost in funding.

Meanwhile an affordable housing program faces cuts, and groups that treat the mentally ill and disabled said their share of state aid will ultimately come up short.

And, of course, there were millions of dollars for causes close to lawmakers’ hearts, including funding for civic groups, cultural centers, museums and mentoring programs.

In the end, the dollar signs, pluses and minuses listed on a budget “scorecard” released last week show some of the potential winners and losers in the fiscal 2008 budget, a document which has the ability to impact issues such as education, security and health care. Lawmakers expect to hold their first votes on the plan Monday and could give the proposal final approval as early as Thursday. Democrats and Gov. Jon S. Corzine reached an agreement on the $33.5 billion spending plan last week.

Aid to the state’s hospitals, many of which face budget deficits, consumed much of this year’s debate. The facilities emerged largely pleased with the results. Lawmakers added $129 million in state funding above what Corzine first proposed, and additional federal dollars will bring aid to hospitals up to $776 million in financial help.

“We know it’s a lean budget time so we appreciate the magnitude of the increase,” said Betsy Ryan, chief operating officer of the New Jersey Hospital Association.

The item likely to spark the sharpest exchanges in coming days is spending on political earmarks. The tally for how much money is set aside for political projects and how much is for policy choices largely depends on your point of view and political party. Estimates on the cost of the earmarks range from $12 million (by Democrats) to $312 million (by Republicans) and a wide range in between (by news organizations).

While there is no clear definition of what constitutes “Christmas tree’ projects, so named because they are delivered like presents to specific groups, a Gannett New Jersey analysis puts the total between $30 million and $40 million, plus another $60 million in unspecified grants that the administration will later steer to select municipalities. Other reports have placed the figure between $30 million and $112 million.

In other areas, members of nonprofit health clubs, such as YMCAs and JCCs, emerged with a break as lawmakers agreed to repeal the 7 percent sales tax on memberships for those sites. A bill moving through the Legislature also repeals the sales tax on municipal parking facilities.

Charter schools, which sought aid for their low-income students equal to the support given to public schools, netted a $4.7 million increase. Jessani Gordon, executive director of the Charter Public Schools Association, said 49 of the state’s 53 charter schools will qualify for the aid.

“When we met with legislators they recognized this as totally inequitable and so they supported it,” Gordon said.

Nine other schools falling behind spending and education standards received a combined $2.9 million of support. Sen. Ellen Karcher, D-Monmouth, lobbied for the increase to help Freehold and eight other districts, including Clementon, Woodland, Commercial, Lawrence (Cumberland County), South River and Hammonton, although they received about half of what they were seeking.

“This compromise represents our best first step in making many of the underperforming, underfunded school districts in the state whole,” Karcher said.

Lawmakers also set aside $8 million to help areas hit by flooding and $625,000 to boost tourism. Another $10 million will go to increasing education for adults and $24 million more will go to cancer research.

To find money to meet these, needs, however, Democrats cut back in other areas. Affordable housing programs lost $10 million, although advocates said they were working with Corzine’s office to restore the money.

“We were extremely surprised and dismayed,” said Staci Berger, director of advocacy for the Housing Community Development Network of New Jersey. “We expect that they will make this right in the near term.”

Groups that care for the disabled and mentally ill had sought a 4 percent funding boost. Lawmakers and the administration agreed to a 3 percent increase, starting in January, covering only half of the budget year.

Republicans chastised the overall spending increase, saying the the state should look to cut costs. As it stands now, the new budget will be $2.7 billion larger than the one approved last July, although much of that funding increase is for property tax rebates.

“Other states in the region are enjoying billions of dollars in budget surpluses which they are using to invest in schools, health care, and reducing taxes, while New Jersey continues to struggle,” Sen. Joseph Kyrillos Jr., R-Monmouth, said.

But Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, said the budget addresses needs.

“We have an obligation to talk about the issues and solve the problems that this state faces. … The needs far outweigh the money that we have,” Greenwald said.

Jonathan Tamari: jtamari@gannett.com