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Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Ciattarelli gives Murphy’s budget address low marks

GOP gubernatorial candidate not worried lack of tax hikes undercutting Republican messaging

By Nikita Biryukov, February 23 2021 3:10 pm

This article was updated with comment from Jerrel Harvey at 6:17 p.m.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget address received low marks from Republican Gubernatorial frontrunner Jack Ciattarelli, who chaffed over the budget’s growth under Murphy and his adherence to the state’s school funding formula.

“The budget is now $45 billion. I believe that’s almost a one-third increase in the budget since the time Murphy took office,” said Ciattarelli, a former Assemblyman. “And yet, what we didn’t hear anything about today was what we need to do to get our kids back to school.”

During his address, Murphy said “the overwhelming majority of our schools are open for in-person instruction.” That’s technically true, but the overwhelming majority of New Jersey school districts currently employ a mix of in-person and virtual classes.

The $44.8 billion budget proposal Murphy unveiled Tuesday is the first he’s put forward that lacks proposed tax increases, a point Ciattarelli and some other Republicans, like Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) and State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver), saw as a politically expedient move as the governor moves into his re-election campaign.

“This is an election-year budget if ever there was one. Suddenly, he’s talking about cutting red tape and a smaller and more efficient government and modernizing critical governmental operations in agencies like Motor Vehicles and unemployment,” Ciattarelli said.

Still, he wasn’t concerned about the lack of proposed tax increases undercutting Republicans’ traditional talking points on revenues.

“I really don’t,” he said when asked if he believed a lack of tax hikes would undercut campaign messaging. “The governor has done enormous damage that won’t be forgotten or forgiven, especially in our nursing homes, on main street, at motor vehicles and with unemployment benefits and the vaccination rollout.”

The budget’s price tag, an increase of 29% from Gov. Chris Christie’s final $34.7 billion budget proposal buoyed by a dip into the state’s $4.9 billion surplus, comes with tax rebates of up to $500 for roughly a quarter of the state’s households.

The former governor jabbed Murphy on the budget’s growth on Twitter, a fact Murphy’s campaign took some exception to.

“It’s not surprising to see Jack Ciattarelli’s attack dog attempting to spin eight years of financial mismanagement and disinvestment under his administration as a win for New Jersey. Governor Murphy has spent the past three years digging out of the mess left behind by the former Governor’s failed economic record, which includes 11 credit downgrades, skipped pension payments, and budgetary gimmicks year after year,” campaign spokesman Jerrel Harvey said. “Rather than repeating the same mistakes from the Christie playbook, Governor Murphy has undertaken the hard work necessary to restore sustainability to the State’s finances and put forth budgets that prioritize the middle class over the wealthy and well-connected.

Republicans have opposed that borrowing, which was enabled by the legislature to aid the state’s flailing finances in the early months of the pandemic and which skirted voter approval, and Ciattarelli was no exception.

The Hillsborough resident hit Murphy over his speech’s silence on the borrowed money before moving into attacks over the incumbent’s handling of New Jersey’s businesses.

“Our business climate is ranked the worst in the nation, and yet the budget address really said nothing about how to reform our tax code to make New Jersey a more attractive place to do business,” he said.

While Murphy’s address did not include a promise to cut the state’s corporate business tax, his proposal did include two $100 million small business aid programs.

The Main Street Recovery Finance Program, which was created by a recently-passed $14 billion tax incentive program meant to draw businesses to New Jersey, will disburse its funds over the next two years.

His budget includes another $100 million in grants to businesses administered through multiple departments, including the Economic Development Authority, which oversees the tax incentive programs.

It’ll also feature the state’s first full pension payment since 1996.

“It’s certainly good news for public employees. At the same time, in the absence of reforms, particularly for new state hires specific to Cadillac and defined benefit plans, it’s disappointing,” Ciattarelli said. “There’s room for reform, but that’s not something the governor seems at all interested in.”

Ciattarelli last year called for the state to skip its pension payment because of the pandemic’s fiscal fallout. Murphy then said such a move, and Ciattarelli’s call, were “incredibly dumb.”

The Republican candidate on Friday declined to comment on whether he supported the state meeting its pension obligation. Treasury and administration officials said the full payment, made a year ahead of schedule, would save the state $860 million over the next 30 years.

Ciattarelli got in a more light-hearted jab over an introductory video to the address featuring officials from the Treasury, Office of Management and Budget and Department of Transportation, among others.

“When it comes to the State of the State and the budget address, the governor loves to put on a performance,” he said. “And so, there’s always, it seems, a great deal of unnecessary choreography.”

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