Corzine committed to cost cutting

April 10, 2008 1:21:01 PM PDT
Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Thursday said he's determined to pass a cost-slashing budget proposal, despite the grumblings he's heard about the cuts. "Just because there's been push back doesn't mean I'm not strongly committed," Corzine told the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, a group opposed to his proposed 10.5 percent cut in aid to towns and cities.

Corzine's $33 billion budget proposal would cut spending by $2.7 billion, drawing outcry from legislators, local officials, lobbyists and citizens, but the Democratic governor said he won't waver in trying to fix long-troubled state finances plagued by deficits and high debt and taxes.

"It's time to take drastic transformative steps to change the course of our state's fiscal direction," Corzine said at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. "We need to do that now."

Corzine's cuts would hit towns with less than 10,000 resident hardest. Those towns would instead be eligible for grants to share services or merge with neighbors.

Mayors claim the cut would boost the state's highest-in-the-nation property taxes, which average $6,800 per homeowner.

But Corzine said increased school aid - one of the few areas where spending would increase - means property taxes shouldn't rise.

"We would not expect, on balance, that there would be excessive pressure for overall local tax hikes," he told the mayors.

Besides municipal aid, Corzine's budget plan would slice state funding for hospitals, property tax rebates, state colleges and nursing homes. Corzine also wants to abolish three state departments, cut 3,000 state jobs and implement new and higher health care fees for the poor and elderly. Nine state parks would close.

The state Constitution requires a budget be adopted by July 1.

A coalition of environmental, housing, labor, education and community organizations on Thursday beseeched lawmakers to reject the cuts.

"We will see longer emergency room waits, higher property taxes and shuttered parks and libraries," said Eva Bonime of The Better Choices Budget Campaign. "This budget makes the wrong choices for working families."

The group suggested increasing income, gas, gambling, alcohol and corporate taxes and ending state business subsidies, but Corzine said he won't approve tax increases.

Corzine has said he's willing to phase-in the municipal cuts. He hasn't detailed how that would work, but said restoring funding or phasing-in cuts would mean cutting other areas, such as aid for community colleges, schools and food distribution for the poor.

"Something else must be cut," Corzine said. "I'm open to that discussion, but it needs to be reasonable and responsible."

Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., D-Camden, opposes Corzine's municipal aid proposal, contending it shouldn't be based on population but on efficiency standards.

Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said mayors understand state fiscal woes, but said they've long battled financial and property tax worries at the local level. She predicted the aid cuts would resonant for years.

"Our residents will feel the strain if the plan goes forward unaltered," Mahr said. "Those effects will be felt, I believe, for years to come."

She said mayors will remain vocal in opposition, while working to find alternatives.

"It's critical that reductions be equitable and they be fair," Mahr said. "They should not rely on some arbitrary population number."

Corzine denied making arbitrary decisions.

"We must do more with less, or we must choose to do less," he said.