No tax hike, call for pension changes in Christie’s $34.4 billion budget plan

 Gov. Chris Christie emphasizes a point as he delivers his budget address at the Statehouse Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Gov. Chris Christie emphasizes a point as he delivers his budget address at the Statehouse Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

While he’s calling for no new taxes, Gov. Chris Christie sounded the alarm in his budget message on an expense that will weigh heavily on New Jersey.

Christie’s $34.4 billion budget proposal is the largest ever for New Jersey. Most of the increase in spending will be eaten up by the costs of pension payments, health benefits and debt obligations, he said.

And, he said, the overhaul of the state’s pension system enacted in 2011 doesn’t go far enough.

“We’re in danger of having these costs overwhelm our budget, monopolize our resources, and threaten our ability to continue to fund the priorities that our citizens care the most about,” he said Tuesday.

And that, he told lawmakers, means legislative initiatives will go no where.

“All of you have great ideas of things you want to do to make New Jersey stronger and more competitive,” he said. “So do I. If we do not get this tiger by the tail, none of it will happen.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney said he believes the governor is trying to renegotiate pension reforms, but Democrats who control the legislature won’t allow it.

“Employees are paying more, and if we stay the course, the pension system will be fine. It’s not going to bankrupt us,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “What we’re missing here is we haven’t grown our economy.”

Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald echoed Sweeney’s concerns.

“How much are you going to get out of reforms asking people that we’ve already asked to pay more?” said Greenwald, D-Camden. “How much are you going to move the needle on asking them to reform it further when it’s not necessary and the pension is safe?”

Democrats said they were pleased the governor did not propose an income tax cut the state can’t afford now.

The budget proposal includes money to fund his proposal to explore lengthening the school day and school year.

“This budget includes $5 million for a new Education Innovation Fund, a competitive ‘Race to the Top’ style program which will call on school districts to put forward proposal for the best way to implement approaches to increase students’ learning time,” Christie said.

The governor’s budget plan also earmarked funding to expand the state’s drug courts, an alternative to prison for nonviolent drug offenders who agree to go through rehab.

The lawmakers plan to negotiate a spending plan with the administration by the July 1 deadline.

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