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Political Battle Expected Over NJ Budget

Gov. Chris Christie (file / credit: Tim Larsen / Governor's Office)

Gov. Chris Christie (file / credit: Tim Larsen / Governor’s Office)

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TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Stark differences in party policy and ideology will be fully exposed this week as Republicans and Democrats hammer out the details of New Jersey’s state budget for the fiscal year that starts Friday.

Republicans led by Gov. Chris Christie want to hold the line on spending and taxes. Democrats led by legislative leaders in the Senate and Assembly want to restore funding to the state’s most needy citizens and fully fund public education, and they want the state’s wealthiest taxpayers to shoulder more of the costs.

Legislators have four days to work out their differences and present a balanced budget to Christie, who has line-item veto power and can take a red pen to any appropriations he wants to strike.

“On the front end, I wanted to avoid what is happening now … which is that everything is compressed into this week,” Christie told The Associated Press. “Part of my incentive to put a lot of pressure publicly on (the Democratic-controlled Legislature) in the spring was to say get this (pension and health benefits reform) done and get this out of the way.”

Debate over benefits legislation requiring sharply higher pension and health insurance payments from the state’s public work force dragged on longer than legislative leaders imagined, delaying budget discussions. The legislation was approved by the Assembly after hours of bitter debate Thursday, but a cleanup bill is headed back to the Senate for a final vote Monday. The supplemental legislation will remove a restriction on policyholders seeking out-of-state care.

The governor is expected to quickly sign the bill once the Senate votes to remove the provision.

The contentious debate over employee benefits delayed the start of budget hearings until Monday. Final votes are now set for Thursday, though no one will have seen a budget bill in advance.

Declan O’Scanlon, the Assembly GOP budget officer, complained about the compressed schedule Sunday, before he had any budget documents in hand. He said Democrats complained about having to pass benefits legislation in 10 days when they’re about to pass a budget in four.

Christie’s proposed budget is $29.6 billion. Democrats have drafted their own fiscal plan, which allocates about $30 billion.

Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono defended the Democrats’ version of the plan.

“Somebody’s got to stand up for working families in New Jersey,” Buono said. “The governor has a very different set of priorities and values and this budget will reflect the Democratic vision that looks out for the working men and women of New Jersey, looks out for the vulnerable in our population, looks out for senior citizens who are in need of property tax relief.”

But Christie ripped into the opposition’s budget.

“The proposed budget from the Democrats is just more of the same unrealistic, pie in the sky, fantasy budgeting they brought to New Jersey for the eight years before we arrived,” Christie said. “Instead of continuing to put New Jersey on strong fiscal footing, this proposal reaffirms the Democrats’ commitment to job-killing tax increases and an unrepentant addiction to spending.”

The two sides disagree on plenty, starting with just how much the state can spend.

Christie said Friday that New Jersey won’t have as much money coming in as Democrats propose spending. Though Democrats say the state will take in more revenue than the treasurer projects, Christie certified only the amount he has proposed.

Democrats want to reinstate an income tax surcharge on millionaires, saying the estimated $500 million in added revenue would be applied to public school aid and property tax relief for senior citizens who own homes.

Christie has promised repeatedly to veto the tax increase.

The Democrats’ budget also contains appropriations for business zones in struggling cities and towns, restoration of a tax credit for the working poor and more money for women’s health clinics. Some of the funding comes from unused or overfunded accounts.

A balanced budget must be in place by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. If no budget is passed and signed by then, state government technically would run out of money and shut down.

Where do you stand on spending and taxes in the state budget? Sound off in our comments section below…

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)