- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - An uncharacteristically uncombative Chris Christie on Tuesday unveiled a $35.5 billion fiscal 2018 budget, promising to work with lawmakers on overhauling how the state funds education, calling for the transfer of the state’s lottery revenues to the public pension and asking the state’s biggest insurer to fund drug rehab care.

Christie, New Jersey’s two-term Republican governor who made a name for himself as plain-spoken in party by once telling a constituent to sit down and shut up, delivered the roughly hourlong address to the Democrat-controlled Legislature on Tuesday as President Donald Trump begins to unroll own priorities for the country.

It is the final budget of Christie’s two terms as one of the country’s most well-known governors.

Christie did not address the fate of federal dollars New Jersey relied on - $14 billion this year - that could be in for a change under the Trump administration.

He laid out the high-profile policy proposals despite an underlying budget that doesn’t propose changing much for taxpayers: Christie didn’t propose any tax increases or new cuts, funding to schools remained flat and property tax relief edged up slightly.

“We still have work to do. We will always have work to do. We are New Jerseyans - we are always striving,” Christie said.

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EDUCATION OVERHAUL?

Christie abandoned a school funding formula he unveiled last year that would have equalized funding to districts at $6,599 per student, resulting in big cuts for about 30 poorer districts that get outsized aid under current law. Instead, Christie said he was pledging to law lawmakers that he would work with them to get the deal done.

“Everything is on the table,” he said.

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LOTTERY REVENUE SHIFT

He also unveiled a proposal to transfer the state lottery revenue to the state’s pension plans, which face billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities. Separately from the new proposal, he allocated $2.5 billion for this year’s pension payment, up from $1.9 billion last year.

The lottery has carried more than $900 million annually in revenue in recent years.

Christie says the move would reduce the unfunded portion of the pension from 49 percent to 64 percent, but it’s unclear how the shifting funds would affect the departments that benefit from the money. Currently, beneficiaries of lottery proceeds include state higher education programs, centers for the developmentally disabled and state psychiatric hospitals.

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PAYING FOR REHAB

Christie also called on the state’s biggest insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, to use some of what he said was a nearly $3 billion surplus to pay for inpatient and outpatient drug rehab. The proposal comes as Christie dedicates his final year to combatting opioid addiction, which claimed 1,600 people in 2015.

Horizon said it’s not true the insurer has an “abundant surplus” and the change the governor proposes would make insurance more costly in the state.

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DEMOCRATS’ MIXED REACTION

Unlike previous years where Democratic leaders who control the Legislature have attacked Christie’s plans, they sounded open to the new proposals Tuesday

“I’m willing to work together. Nothing should be off limits, but let’s see what works,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said after the speech. He was more skeptical of the lottery proposal and questioned how the cost shift would be dealt with.

Democrats in both chambers of the Legislature have been working separately on an education plan but have failed to agree on a path forward.

On the lottery proposal, Senate President Steve Sweeney paraphrased Trump, who recently described efforts to repeal the federal health care law as far from simple.

“As our president said, pensions and lotteries are complicated,” Sweeney said.

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Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini

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