Corzine Seeks to Cut N.J. Budget and Work Force

TRENTON — Declaring that New Jersey had reached an irrevocable “turning point” because of years of bad fiscal habits, Gov. Jon S. Corzine proposed a budget on Tuesday that would reduce the state’s work force by 3,000 people, close three departments and prune expenses for services including colleges and hospitals.

Corzine’s Proposed Budget Cuts If enacted as proposed, the overall state budget would shrink by $500 million to $33 billion, marking only the fifth time in the last 50 years that New Jersey would spend less money than it did the previous year. Assuming inflation this year at around 3 percent, as it has been since 2004, the cut would be equivalent to roughly $1.5 billion, or 4.4 percent of last year’s budget, in real terms.

“Frankly, New Jersey has a government its people cannot afford,” a somber Governor Corzine told a stone-silent group of legislators, lobbyists and local officials in his annual budget address.

“We must turn away from the era of spending and borrowing beyond our means, once and for all,” he said. “In practical terms, failing to take on the tough choices will only force New Jersey into a deeper fiscal swamp.”

Mr. Corzine delivered the harsh prognosis against a grim national backdrop, given that more than 20 states, New York included, are now grappling with budget shortfalls because of a downturn in the national economy, according to an analysis released Monday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But New Jersey’s troubles are especially deep, fiscal analysts say, because of rising costs for pension and health care benefits, a ballooning increase in spending under both Republicans and Democrats over the last decade or so and the longtime practice of paving over deficits with one-shot revenues that dried up the following year.

So while the slumping housing market has led to shrinking tax receipts across the country, only a few states face a greater shortfall than the nearly 10 percent gap New Jersey has to fill, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said. Arizona’s deficit is the largest, 16 percent, followed by California, at 15 percent.

Here in Trenton, Mr. Corzine warned that the new math was full of difficult numbers, big and small.

He proposed cutting state aid to colleges and universities by $76 million, or 4 percent. Grants to towns? Down $190 million (about 10 percent). Hospitals? Less $144 million (14 percent). His plan would shut down the Departments of Personnel, Agriculture and Commerce, and trim jobs across the board, largely through buyouts. Residents would face longer lines and shorter hours at motor vehicle registries, and limited hours at public parks.

Beyond the numbers, Mr. Corzine said he wanted to change the culture of the way the state government operated. He said, at several junctures, that he had been humbled by the anger of the public, much of which has been trained on him and his proposed toll increases in a series of town-hall meetings in recent weeks.

In a 25-minute speech, the governor used some variation of the word “cut” at least 28 times and elicited applause just twice: when he entered the Assembly chamber, and when he left.

“I have heard firsthand the public’s frustration and anger generated by too many years of overspending, borrowing and false rhetoric,” he said. “And they’re right.”

He later referred to his plan as “cold-turkey therapy for our troubled spending addiction.”

After the speech, the state’s top two legislators, both Democrats like the governor, offered a guarded assessment.

Senate President Richard J. Codey said that “anything that affects the middle class or the poor is going to get a thorough look at and see whether we can restore some of the cuts that have been proposed.” In a sign of the challenging economy, he added: “But if we do that, we have to also propose a cut of our own.”

Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. said he believed that the budget reflected the consensus that the public was demanding spending cuts. “I think they’ve said with a very clear and loud voice, ‘We’re not prepared to consider tolls or taxes or revenue anywhere until you can convince us and demonstrate to us that you’ve cut everywhere that’s possible.’”

Republicans, meanwhile, said that they felt vindicated, at least in part, because they had been calling for spending cuts for years.

“It’s a good beginning for us,” said Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, the minority leader. “I would like to see them cut a little deeper.”

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