* Popular governor presents bare-boned fiscal plan ahead of
* Largest payment ever to the state's public pension system
* Online gambling approved
By Hilary Russ
TRENTON, New Jersey, Feb 26 New Jersey Governor
Chris Christie presented a new state budget on Tuesday, but the
popular Republican shied away from tax cuts after last year's
bid at an income tax reduction fell victim to Democratic
opposition as the economy stumbled.
Christie, who is up for re-election this year, stopped short
of proposing in the $32.9 billion budget the kind of bold, new
initiatives he was touting this time last year.
Instead, he tossed a previous tax cut compromise back to the
Democrat-led legislature but did not include funding for it in
his budget blueprint, the first since Superstorm Sandy ravaged
the coast of New Jersey in October.
His fiscal 2014 budget had more prosaic priorities,
including a $1.68 billion payment to the state's public pension
system - a near $650 million increase over this year's payment
and the biggest in the state's history, he said.
In this fiscal year, which ends on June 30, the state's more
than $1 billion pension contribution was double what it had been
the year before. But that was still only a third of New Jersey's
actuarially required amount.
Christie also begrudgingly said he would expand the state's
healthcare coverage for the poor under U.S. President Barack
Obama's federal healthcare reform. The decision makes him the
eighth Republican governor to opt for expansion - even as they
decried the new law.
The increased federal funds from expanding Medicaid would
save the state about $277 million in fiscal 2014 alone,
Christie's budget officials said in a briefing with reporters.
Christie's budget blueprint also has to deal with a
projected $407 million shortfall for the end of fiscal 2013,
which would be closed largely by pushing off nearly $400 million
of homestead tax rebates to fiscal 2014.
That program, a credit applied to homeowners' property tax
bills if they make less than $75,000, primarily benefits the
elderly and disabled.
SLOW GROWTH PROJECTED
Last year, Christie predicted a New Jersey comeback from the
recession and more than 7 percent revenue growth. But the
state's economy lagged, and then Superstorm Sandy dealt a major
blow when it swept ashore in October.
On Tuesday, Christie projected that fiscal 2014 revenues
would be 4.9 percent - or $1.5 billion - above revised estimates
for this fiscal year, and just 3.5 percent above the enacted
levels from last June.
Christie, who is more popular with state voters than any
other New Jersey governor in nearly 20 years, said his budget
was balanced and included no new taxes.
The $32.9 billion spending plan is still less than New
Jersey spent in fiscal 2008, he said.
It includes a $40 million contingency fund for Sandy-related
expenses that may not immediately be reimbursed by federal aid.
It also banks on a surge in casino revenues, to an estimated
$436 million in fiscal 2014 from $235 million this year. The
revenue leap is due largely to the legalization of internet
gambling within state borders, a bill Christie also signed on
Christie didn't give Democrats much meat to chew on. After
his address, they praised his decision to expand Medicaid, to
make the pension payment and to fund basic and higher education.
But they called his plan to push back the homestead rebate a
"gimmick," saying they would examine budget details in the
coming day and seek more information.