Just over a year ago Governor Christie entered office and was faced with an unprecedented budget gap. In January of 2010, New Jersey was staring down a $2.2 billion deficit for fiscal year 2010 that required difficult and tough solutions. Furthermore, Governor Christie still had to address an immediate $10.7 billion gap in fiscal year 2011. It was not easy, but the Governor laid out a plan to do what was necessary to stabilize the state’s finances.
In many ways, the leftover mess of fiscal year 2010 was an indicator of everything wrong with New Jersey’s budget process. The previous budget gaps, totaling a combined $13 billion, were the culmination of years of shortsighted policies and poor budgeting practices that ignored economic realities, failed to plan for eroding recurring revenue sources, and consistently relied on one-time revenues sources. Despite diminishing revenue, State spending increased by nearly 30% over the previous eight years. Consistent spending beyond the State’s means was emblematic of the Trenton philosophy – just continue to automatically fund programs at previous levels without giving any thought to the effectiveness of the program or the overall fiscal health of the state.
The hard choices that required shared sacrifice in the fiscal year 2011 Budget set the foundation for future budget planning. By closing a nearly $11 billion budget gap of legislated spending without raising taxes, Governor Christie hit the reset button on how budgeting works in Trenton.
The Christie Administration has changed the paradigm and established a New Normal in budgeting. The New Normal in these difficult economic and budgetary times requires a fundamental rethinking of how and where the State spends scarce taxpayer dollars. Every year the Office of Legislative Services is asked to define a projected deficit that assumes no one is actually managing the budget or setting priorities. This projection is the old way of budgeting – assuming each and every program will be funded at the same level or higher each and every year. As such, the Budget is just running its course without anyone taking responsibility for setting priorities.