Corzine Holds His Ground As Budget Critics Press Ahead

Newsday — Sunday, April 13, 2008

Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — Harry Truman once said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine can relate.

"I've been out shopping for a rottweiler," he joked.

He may need one to stave off critics of his proposed $33 billion state budget that would cut spending by $2.7 billion to try to tackle chronic state fiscal woes.

Or the Democratic governor could just hold his ground, which he has made clear he plans to do as the July 1 constitutional budget deadline nears.

Legislators, mayors, liberal-leaning citizens groups and lobbyists continue criticizing Corzine's proposed spending plan, which calls for state funding cuts for property tax rebates, towns and cities, hospitals, state colleges and nursing homes.

The agriculture, commerce and personnel departments would be abolished, with 3,000 state workers either given early retirement or laid off.

New and increased fees would be imposed on the poor and elderly for some health care services.

Nonprofits that serve the disabled and other vulnerable citizens wouldn't get a cost-of-living increase.

Nine state parks would close.

Critics predict higher property taxes and tuition, hospital closures, increased health insurance costs and reduced services for the poor and disabled.

"These cuts are impacting the quality of life of people," said Bill Dressel, executive director of the state League of Municipalities.

Corzine said he's willing to discuss alternative cuts, but won't:

_ Increase taxes.

_ Approve spending more than the $33 billion he's proposed.

_ Rely on one-time funding sources.

_ Take money from funds dedicated to specific purposes, such as unemployment benefits and worker's compensation.

He's also vowed to shrink the size of state government.

"More than ever, I am focused on fundamentally changing and correcting our state's deeply flawed spending and fiscal habits," Corzine said. "We cannot spend more than we take in."

But Assemblyman Reed Gusciora questioned abolishing the agriculture department and closing state parks.

He estimated those moves would save only $9.3 million.

"The Department of Agriculture and state parks are merely low hanging fruit in the larger budget picture," said Gusciora, D-Mercer.

He suggested more earthshaking moves, such as merging the health and human services departments that spend about $6.7 billion in combined state money.

Republicans are decrying recent audits that cited wasteful school and health care spending.

"The more we look at these departments, the more apparent it becomes that our government is currently incapable of managing the financial affairs of this state," said Assemblyman Joe Malone, R-Burlington.

Meanwhile, liberal groups that often side with Corzine are vowing to fight as the July 1 deadline nears.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, the executive director of government watchdog New Jersey Citizen Action, said they'll fight through door-to-door canvassing, rallies in targeted legislative districts, leafleting, letter writing, phone calls and e-mails.

"We know there are better choices for New Jersey, and we are going to make sure the politicians in Trenton know it too," Salowe-Kaye said.

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