WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
New York, NY –
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is freezing $1.6 billion in state aid as part of an effort to close a $2.2 billion deficit. At a joint legislative session, Christie told lawmakers that the freeze, by executive order, includes withholding $475 million in state aid to local school districts.
Christie told lawmakers that the freeze would affect 500 districts, with 100 losing all their state aid for the rest of the fiscal year. The governor says he aims to avoid classroom cuts by forcing local districts to spend existing surpluses and that districts will not lose any funding from already approved budgets.
Christie says he knows the freeze will be unpopular, but explained his decision this way: "Our priorities are this: To reduce and reform New Jersey's habit of excessive government spending, to reduce taxes, to encourage job creation, to shrink our bloated government, and to fund our responsibilities on a pay-as-you-go basis, and not to leave them for future generations."
Democratic Senate President, Stephen Sweeney, is calling the cuts "irresponsible." He says Christie's use of an executive order goes back on his word to work in a bipartisan fashion.
As for cutting school aid, the governor says, "We have not reduced school aid with an axe, we have done it with a scalpel, and with great care."
Frank Bellucio, with the New Jersey School Boards Association says school districts amass surpluses to address specific needs. Bellucio says he understands New Jersey's fiscal dire straits, but insists freezing surplus funds is not the way to go. "There could be a placement of a special ed student within a district, and that child might require a costly out of district placement for specialized services," Bellucio says.
Christie's budget freeze will also affect NJ Transit. He is urging the agency to improve its operating efficiency, and review what he calls its "rich union contracts."
Messages left for NJ Transit were not immediately returned.
The new Republican governor predicts an even leaner budget next year, when the state faces a projected $11 billion budget gap.