Budget cuts might be eased in New Jersey

April 16, 2008 2:00:56 PM PDT
State parks and the agriculture department would stay open. Aid cuts for towns and cities wouldn't be so steep. Lawmakers wouldn't add pet projects into the budget. And government wouldn't close. Nothing is official until a budget is completed, but Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. said legislative leaders and Gov. Jon S. Corzine have a general consensus to ease some proposed budget cuts.

That doesn't mean all will be cheerful, said Roberts, D-Camden.

A proposed aid cut for hospitals seems likely to stand.

"These are very difficult and very painful but we have few other options," Roberts told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Corzine has proposed $2.7 billion in cuts to right troubled finances. His proposals to cut aid for small towns, eliminate the agriculture department and close nine parks have been loudly decried.

Corzine has said he's willing to phase-in aid cuts largely designed to push small towns toward sharing services or merge. He told the editorial board for the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill that it's "pretty obvious" plans to close parks and the agriculture department would be reworked before the July 1 budget deadline.

Roberts predicted a "significantly moderated" municipal aid cut.

Mayors contend the cut would boost the nation's highest property taxes.

"We should begin to wean some of the smaller municipalities off state aid as a further incentive for them to make the hard decisions about regionalization and consolidation," Roberts said. "However, I feel that we can't hit them over the head all at once."

The plan to eliminate the agriculture department has outraged farmers.

"He's now open to saving the Department of Agriculture and recognizes the symbolic importance that has," Roberts said.

Still, Treasurer David Rousseau continued pushing to eliminate the department during a Wednesday hearing.

"We believe that functions can be assimilated into the other agencies," Rousseau said.

But Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, noted it would save $500,000 in a $33 billion budget and called it "a fight we don't need to fight."

Corzine is looking to save $4.5 million by closing parks, but Roberts said parks will probably stay open.

Corporate sponsorship or private management could be solutions. Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, suggested increasing park fees. Roberts wasn't so sure.

"I think one of the challenges is the parks are a refuge for New Jerseyans who want to get away but cannot afford to spend a lot of money, and anything we do to make a trip to the parks out of their reach economically, that's a problem," Roberts said.

The New Jersey Sierra Club suggested several ways to raise money for parks.

It said the state could renegotiate leases of land being used by private entities for gas and electric lines, farms and other uses.

It also suggested generating $5 million annually by charging $50 to register all-terrain vehicles. It also proposed charging to park at state parks in the off-season.

Roberts said their goal is to adopt a budget by June 15 and avoid repeating the 2006 dispute that closed state government.

"It clearly doesn't make sense to race against the clock at the end of June," he said. "Things can go wrong."

But he said lawmakers shouldn't expect to add projects into the budget.

"I think the only ones that would have any chance of succeeding would be those that are statewide and for which a compelling case can be made," he said.

Associated Press writer Angela Delli Santi in Trenton contributed to this report.