New Jersey FY 2014 Budget Analysis: Superstorm Sandy just one ingredient in mounting budget problems

Published: April 04, 2013

BudgetElectionsForecasts and SpendingPublic Finance

Of all the budgets rolled out by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during his four years as governor, the 2013-14 plan might be the most important of his career. A maelstrom of structural funding issues, political ambition and environmental acts of God have placed the Garden State’s finances in a precarious position – one with no clear path to closing the estimated $2 billion revenue shortfall that analysts forecast by mid-2013.
It was just last year that Christie’s administration confidently predicted more than 7 percent revenue growth as part of the “New Jersey Comeback Plan,” and aimed to push through additional tax cuts. However, much of that growth failed to materialize, and by late September, the state found itself more than $250 million short of initial estimates. After Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc across the Jersey Shore, the resulting economic fallout ballooned the state’s deficit woes to $451 million.
While emergency federal funds passed in January 2013 will help staunch the bleeding from that particular blow, the state still faces some daunting headwinds: a pension crisis that is expected to cost an estimated $5.5 billion annually starting in 2018; the fourth highest unemployment rate in the nation; a perilous choice on Medicaid expansion, and a strong aversion to tax increases or deep spending cuts on both sides of the aisle to help balance the ledger. Adding to this volatile equation is a governor with national ambitions and all 120 state legislators being up for reelection in November.
All-Funds Spending
Faced with this mix of contradictory incentives, Christie unveiled a budget on Feb. 26 that calls for more than $70 billion in all-funds spending for fiscal year 2014. This represents a nearly 9 percent, or $5.8 billion, increase over the 2013 proposed budget. However, when compared to actual spending totals provided by the governor’s office for FY 2013, that increase shrinks to a little more than $1 billion. While topping the $70 billion mark – something not seen in the past five budget years – the state’s general funds are actually operating at around 2008 levels, something Christie boasted about in his address to the state legislature.
The largest gains from last year’s proposed budget were found in the Department of Human Services ($1.78 billion; 13.3 percent increase), the Department of Labor and Workforce Development ($1.58 billion; 32 percent increase) and the New Jersey Transit Corporation ($809 million; 48.8 percent increase). The funding increases in these three departments combined make up more than 70 percent of the increase from last year’s  proposed budget. Not surprisingly, the Department of Human Services saw a big increase year over year. With responsibilities for Medicaid and other health care spending, New Jersey is like every other state in the nation struggling to keep up with rising health care costs that threaten to crowd out other budget priorities.
Christie’s decision to embrace Medicaid expansion (and the gobs of federal subsidies that go with it) will yield $227 million in savings this next fiscal year. Built into Christie’s all-funds budget for the department is a $1 billion increase in federal funding, most of which will go toward expanding health coverage to 104,000 previously uninsured, low-income citizens. The overwhelming majority of the non-state appropriated portion of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development goes toward unemployment insurance and bond funds, with about $900 million coming from the state, federal government and other funds. The budget documents do not break out funding for the N.J. Transit Corporation, but the hefty increase may reflect an underestimated price tag for running the state’s public transportation infrastructure in last year’s budget. Though the governor only recommended $1.6 billion of funding in FY 2013, the corporation wound up spending more than $2.4 billion, just $37 million less than what is proposed for FY 2014.
Environmental priorities took the biggest hit in this year’s budget cycle, with the Department of Environmental Protection losing $180 million (18 percent) of funding compared to last year. Funding for the quasi-independent New Jersey Schools Authority nearly dropped off the map, going from $200 million in proposed funds for 2013, to just $435,000 for this upcoming fiscal year.
For the complete version of this state budget analysis, please download or purchase the complete Analyst Perspective here.