Murphy’s treasurer: ‘Not a lot of new programs’ in $2.7B increase
Gov. Phil Murphy’s treasurer pushed back Wednesday on critiques of the proposed budget’s spending increase using a familiar refrain from former Gov. Chris Christie’s days – noting how much of it is actually driven by mandatory costs.
The spending plan for fiscal year 2019 is $37.4 billion, plus a projected $743 million year-end balance. That’s $2.75 billion higher than the budget adopted last July and $1.5 billion more than current year spending including midyear supplemental spending.
“It’s not a lot of new programs,” acting Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio told the Assembly Budget Committee Wednesday. “It’s debt, it’s health, and it’s pension. So – and it’s Medicaid. So that accounts for 82 percent of the growth.”
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, said those aren’t new as drivers of state spending.
“But what is new is free college education at the community college, fully funding pre-K,” Munoz said.
“We can’t get the money to the K-12 schools that need the money, and yet at the same time we are starting new initiatives,” Munoz said. “It just seems that there’s something that’s just not right here.”
Muoio estimates that new spending initiatives amount to around $600 million.
“Before we roll out this new spending for two very laudable goals of free tuition and pre-K, we really need to fix this formula,” said Assemblyman Robert Clifton, R-Monmouth.
Discontent over school aid has dominated the budget deliberations so far, with Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, now delaying a Senate vote on the confirmation of acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, citing concerns about progress on funding fixes.
“The governor is generous in the new money he is allotting for public education – very welcomed,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. “You would think people would be clamoring in this room to thank us for this number that’s being allocated. Instead, they came with pitchforks.”
Muoio said the Department of Education followed the statutory funding formula and that the complaints are best aimed at the formula, not the administration.
On another issue, Muoio was pressed at the hearing to explain why she had partially reversed a decision made at the end of Christie’s term to reduce the pension funds’ assumed rate of return from 7.65 percent to 7 percent.
Muoio said that reduction, which would have applied to Murphy’s first budget, was larger than every earlier reduction approved by Christie’s administration combined. Lowering the assumption for future performance has the effect of increasing the size of needed payments in the funds.
“It would have put an increased hit on the budget on the state budget of roughly $200 million, and it would have increased the hit on the local government budgets by $400 million,” Muoio said.
Muoio last month said the rate of return would be lowered to 7 percent over five years. The assumption will be 7.5 percent for fiscal years 2019 and 2020, 7.3 percent for fiscal 2021 and 2022, then 7 percent starting in fiscal 2023.
Assemblyman Edward Thomson, R-Monmouth, who is an actuary, said other states that use a 7.5 percent assumed rate of return have much healthier pension funds than New Jersey.
He said the reason next year’s pension contribution is the largest ever at $3.2 million is because the pension deficit is the largest ever – and growing, since the payment is still around $2.2 billion less than what actuaries suggest should be put in.
“Defined benefit plans work, and it incenses me that they’ve been played around with in the public sector as bad as they have,” Thomson said.