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Christie Touts Recovery, Continued Momentum in Budget Address

The governor's budget relies heavily on federal aid for Sandy—aid that might disappear with sequestration.

Progress is evident. Momentum is building.

So says Gov. Chris Christie as he laid out his $32.9 billion proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 at the Statehouse Tuesday. Christie said the state’s future, both economically and in recovery following Superstorm Sandy, is moving in the right direction.

With talk of compromise and bipartisanship—as well as a few customary jabs at former Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration—Christie called on the state’s Legislature to keep it going, to make the conscious decision to help New Jersey return to a position of prosperity it once knew.

Of course, it will do so with the help of funding from the federal government.

Included in the governor’s proposed budget is just $40 million in supplemental aid for Sandy-related recovery efforts. And the Sandy money is last resort funding—stopgap aid aimed only at bridging the delay between recovery projects and anticipated federal aid.

When it comes to making New Jersey whole again Sandy's devastation, the bill is being laid directly at the feet of the federal government with the hopes that its $50.7 billion in relief aid will cover the tab.

“In the past year, of course, our economy has been challenged by Superstorm Sandy. In the face of this unprecedented emergency, we have stood together,” Christie said during his address. “Recovering, rebuilding, restoring."

The proposed $40 million “contingency fund” will be used for expenses not reimbursed by the federal government. The funding, he said, will allow small businesses to reopen, and infrastructure improvements to go ahead as planned as the state waits for federal aid.

According to New Jersey Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, the supplemental aid could also be distributed to towns in need throughout the state by the Department of Community Affairs, though only as a final option. Municipalities have been instructed to send their requests for recovery aid or emergency cost reimbursements directly to the federal government.

If sequestration cuts Sandy aid, 'we’re in some trouble'

In his 45-minute presentation, one that received several standing ovations from both Republicans and Democrats on occasion, Christie lauded what he said is a record amount of funding for schools, greater pension contributions and the presentation of a balanced budget with no tax increase for residents.

He credited his administration with "a wave of over 100,000 new jobs," though Christie didn't announce any new jobs initiative or acknowledge the state's unemployment rate—9.6 percent and above the national average as of December. 

Begrudgingly, Christie also announced the state’s expansion of its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Though he said he doesn’t approve of the bill, Christie said, as law, participation is necessary because it represents what’s best for New Jersey’s citizens.

Praised by state Republicans but chided as unrealistic by state Democrats, Christie’s budget could be significantly altered, some say, based on the actions of President Obama and Congress. Should Congress and the White House fail to reach a compromise on budget cuts by this Friday, March 1, the U.S. would enter a sequestration.

Sequester would prompt significant funding cuts in federal aid, including trimming the $50.7 billion Sandy relief package only just approved by Congress in January. Funding for programs like U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Community Develop Block Grant program, which will be used to help residents in New Jersey rebuild and elevate their homes after Sandy, would be reduced.

If that’s the case, some worry the $40 million in Christie’s budget for contingency Sandy aid might not be enough.

State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14) said she believes the contingency fund is a good move by the governor. A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she said even if New Jersey sees every penny of the federal aid package promised, there might still be funding holes that need to be plugged. Seeing the aid package cut do to sequestration, however, could wind up costing New Jersey a lot more in its recovery effort.

“If sequestration goes through, no, (the $40 million) wouldn’t be enough,” she said. “I have a feeling if sequestration goes through we’re in some trouble.”

Christie did not acknowledge the issue specifically, though he did call on elected officials in Washington, DC, to work together. Politicians need to show leadership and a willingness to work in a bipartisan fashion, he said, two attributes that are currently missing in the nation’s capital.

The issue of sequestration is especially significant as New Jersey attempts to recover from Sandy. Though the $40 million funding is just a small fraction of the entire proposed budget, the storm had an immediate impact on revenue and will continue to impact revenue moving forward.

Anticipated revenues in the last budget were off by more than $400 million, a figure treasurer Sidamon-Eristoff attributed to Sandy. Revenue sagged for a couple of months immediately following Sandy, he said, though there’s been an increase in revenue as of late. State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-13), whose district includes some of the areas hardest hit by Sandy, said revenues are trending in the right direction as the rebuilding efforts are underway. Cuts to the aid funding that restoration effort could result in a setback of New Jersey’s post-Sandy recovery.

Throughout his benign presentation of hope and recovery, Christie called for a spirit of compromise. Working together, he said, will ensure New Jersey’s recovery and repositioning as an economic leader.

Add rebuilding the Jersey Shore to that effort.

“The shore will come back—as I’ve said, it will come back stronger than ever,” Christie said. “And I will tell you this: I expect to go to the Jersey Shore every summer for the rest of my life, including this summer of 2013.”

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