- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Get ready, New Jersey: The wrangling over billions of your tax dollars is getting started.

Gov. Chris Christie’s $34.8 billion spending is headed into the legislative hopper and to public hearings before New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature in the coming weeks.

Christie unveiled the fiscal year 2017 budget this week in a speech peppered with attacks against Democrats for proposing to hike the minimum wage to $15 an hour and amending the constitution to require quarterly pension payments.

But Christie also opened the door to debate over the state’s thorniest issues, like funding for transportation and pensions.

Here’s a closer look at what’s next for key areas of the budget and how it will affect residents:

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COMMUTERS AND THE TRUST FUND

It’s too early to say whether the state’s current 14.5-cent gas tax, which is at the center of a debate over how to pay for road and bridge work, will go up. Christie doesn’t address the transportation trust fund, which runs out of money for new projects later this year, in the 2017 budget, but he did say he would consider reasonable proposals that result in tax fairness for residents. Legislators say they’re open to a deal hiking the gas tax while slashing the surcharge on estates. The top reason to address the fund, lawmakers as well as business, labor and environmental advocates say, are the countless potholes and poor road conditions across the state. The sooner the fund is replenished, the sooner residents can drive on safer roads, they say.

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PUBLIC WORKERS AND THE PENSION

Christie and legislators have hit pause in the long-running fight over the annual pension payment. Christie is proposing about $500 million more in the new budget over the current year’s plan, roughly $1.9 billion. Democrats have penciled in that figure based on Christie’s promises from a year ago. But the bigger question about what to do with the pension system’s nearly $80 billion in liabilities is far from settled. Democrats are proposing a quarterly payment requirement to be incorporated into the state constitution. Christie instead wants further cuts to pensioners’ health benefits, which would carry higher costs for new workers coming into the system. The Democrats’ proposal could affect residents in several ways, Christie says, by crowding out other state spending resulting in cuts to needed programs or by making it necessary to raise the sales or income taxes.

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DRUG ADDICTS AND TREATMENT

Christie’s signature initiative, which he touted on the presidential campaign trail, is the closing of Mid-State Correctional Facility and reopening it as a drug treatment center for inmates. Christie unveiled the idea in January during his State of the State address, and this week revealed he plans to dedicate $2 million to see the prison turned into an inmate treatment facility. More broadly, Christie has focused on drug addiction throughout his time as governor, promoting the idea that addiction is a sickness that needs to be treated and pouring state funding into New Jersey’s drug court system. More than 24,000 people were admitted to treatment centers in 2014, according to state data, which was down from roughly 27,000 admissions the previous year.

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PROPERTY TAX PAYERS

Money the state gives in aid to schools and towns is growing under Christie’s new budget. The goal is to help towns and schools keep property tax payers’ rates below the 2 percent cap he enacted in 2010. The funding isn’t a surefire mechanism to keep taxes from going up, though. That depends on whether a town or school district has to raise rates to close budget gaps, and the cap can be exceeded in certain cases like emergencies and for pension and retirement costs. Overall, Christie is proposing boosting relief for property taxes, which are the highest in the country, by $581 million. It’s a smaller increase than what he proposed last year, and the 2017 budget also proposes cutting direct property tax relief by about $20 million. The biggest cuts are penciled in for rebate programs for seniors and the disabled and for non-seniors who own property and earn under $75,000.


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