N.J. government shutdown goes on

Special session takes no action on budget

July 05, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TRENTON, N.J. -- Instead of heading to the beach or preparing for a backyard barbecue, New Jersey's 120 legislators were called to the State House yesterday by Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who urged them to resolve a budget stalemate that has led to a four-day government shutdown. But the day ended with the impasse worse than ever.

After listening to the governor make a 30-minute appeal, in which Corzine emphasized his willingness to compromise with fellow Democrats in the Assembly over his proposal to increase the state sales tax, Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. declared that the governor's plan could not pass.

"We cannot make it any clearer today: The sales tax increase is dead in the General Assembly," Roberts said. "We need to move on to other alternatives and end this shutdown."

With no votes scheduled, many embittered lawmakers left, clearing the way for the shutdown of Atlantic City's 12 casinos and the state's 42 parks as of 8 a.m. today.

Members of the state Assembly budget panel planned to spend the night crafting a new plan, Roberts said. Corzine planned to address the Legislature again at 9 a.m. today.

In a day of dueling news conferences, Corzine and his aides continued to call for the passage of some version of a sales tax increase.

"I'm willing to meet the Legislature halfway," Corzine said.

The state government began shutting down over the weekend after the Legislature failed to approve the governor's $31 billion budget by July 1, the deadline set by law. Soon afterward, offices of the state Division of Motor Vehicles closed and the state lottery, road construction and automobile inspections drew to a halt.

Corzine and Roberts have been locked in a dispute over the governor's proposal to raise the sales tax to 7 percent from 6 percent. Corzine says the increase should be used to help close a $4.5 billion budget shortfall; Roberts insists that the increase address the state's high property taxes.

The dispute has begun to exact a financial toll on the state. Shutting the lottery is costing the state $2.2 million a day, and New Jersey stands to lose about $1.3 million daily if the casinos close.

The shutdown might also block reimbursement of pharmacies for state-subsidized prescriptions and make it impossible for home-buyers to close their transactions because they need state-issued documents.

In his speech to the Legislature, Corzine said he would not abandon the principles regardless of the short-term consequences.

"The shutdown of state government is much more than a mere inconvenience to the citizens of New Jersey," he said.

"It means the loss of a paycheck to tens of thousands of construction workers, casino workers and public employees. It means real hardship to small business owners who will lose income because they can't sell lottery tickets.

"Make no mistake, people are being hurt, and more will be hurt in the days ahead."

But on a day when the state's legislators deferred their Fourth of July plans for a trip to this sweltering state capital, the budget discussions appeared to lose ground rather than gain it, and the finishing touches were applied to complete the phased shutdown of state government.

Although the state has continued to operate prisons, mental hospitals and the state police, about 45,000 of the state's 84,000 workers have been told to stay home without pay.

Members of the Assembly Budget Committee were told to work overnight to produce an alternative to Corzine's budget.

Corzine had hoped that lawmakers would at least continue the budget debate after his address. But Roberts ended the joint session moments after the governor left the chamber.

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