MONTVILLE, N.J. (AP) — In his first three years in office, Gov. Chris Christie's annual budget proposals included spending cuts amid an economic crisis and a tax reduction.
As he goes about now selling his fourth state spending plan, the Republican governor is still talking to voters about what he's done — and tried to do — in the past.
In a Montville town hall meeting Wednesday, Christie boasted that his new budget calls for less spending than the one Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine proposed and the Legislature adopted in 2007 before the Great Recession hit.
"I challenge anybody around the country, no matter what you call yourself, no matter what label you wear, to give that record to the people of their state," an energized Christie said to a crowd of 800 at the Pine Brook Jewish Center. "We did it because we had to. Because this state was going broke, and that there no longer could be any more excuses for asking you for any more of your money."
He bashed the Democrats who control the state Legislature for trying to raise taxes and said that their stance last year was the reason he did not call again for a tax cut in his budget proposal this year.
In response, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said the governor seems to have forgotten how the budget process works.
"In order for us to sign off on any tax cut, he must first present us with a sound plan to fund such a proposal," the Democrat said in an email.
Noting the state currently has a nearly $500 million deficit, she said, "Had Democrats allowed the Governor to go through with his plan last year for tax cuts that disproportionately favor the wealthy, we would be in an even more precarious fiscal position right now. It's clear that the prudence and patience we employed was the right move, and we intend to employ a similar approach this year."
Christie's $32.9 billion spending plan does have elements that could spark some battles with lawmakers, but it does not call for momentous changes to the way the state operates.
He proposes roughly flat aid for towns, an increase of about 1 percent for schools — along with a promise that none will see a decrease in state funding — and no major layoff plans. He projects the state economy will grow and tax collections will increase, partly because of high expectations for revenue from allowing Internet gambling, which he signed a law Tuesday to allow.
In the budget, Christie endorsed expanding Medicaid health insurance to cover more low-income people, a measure that brings with it savings for the state because of a federal government commitment to pay the full cost of Medicaid for three years. He also called for $2 million — or less than one-fiftieth of 1 percent of the state's budget — to fund scholarships to be used to send low-income children in struggling schools to private or out-of-district public schools.
The proposal is a scaled-back trial version of an idea that's been offered in the Legislature for years but has never gotten much traction.
His budget includes more money for two other programs aimed at giving families in low-performing schools more options. He proposed state aid of $16 million for charter schools, up from $13.1 million the current budget. Christie also proposed $49 million for the existing Interdistrict School Choice Program, a hike of nearly 50 percent over the current $33 million. That program allows students to attend school in nearby districts with the state government picking up the tab.
Christie's proposal for aid for schools overall is just under $9 billion and takes up nearly one-third of his budget plan. He said no school would lose state aid from this year and inner-city schools are among those in line for increases. In their initial reactions, Democrats praised that part of the governor's proposal.
But some, including state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie's likely opponent in the gubernatorial election in November, criticized the governor for not doing more to address the state's unemployment rate, which is higher than the nation's.
In his appearance Wednesday, Christie reminded voters of other differences he and Democrats have — including that in each of the last three years, they have proposed an income tax surcharge on high earners and he's vetoed it.
Last year, he proposed a 10 percent income tax cut, but agreed to change it to a property tax cut instead at the behest of Democratic lawmakers. But negotiations over implementing it broke down partly because Democrats fretted that the state could not afford it.
As it turns out, the state is falling short this year on its revenue figures, which Christie proposes addressing by delaying a property tax credit from May to August. But he said he would still be willing to rework the budget to make room for a tax cut.