“They’re all bad choices. None of it is attractive,” Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said Tuesday during a meeting with the Burlington County Times Editorial Board.
Lawmakers are faced with a combined $2.7 billion budget deficit for the current and upcoming fiscal years and a deadline of June 30 to approve a budget that closes both deficits.
Gov. Chris Christie’s budget plan relies largely on slashing the state’s promised pension payments for the current and upcoming fiscal years. In May, he signed an executive order to lower this year’s pension payment from $1.6 billion to $696 million, and his amended budget for the upcoming fiscal year calls for a $681 million payment rather than the originally scheduled $2.25 billion.
Several public workers unions have sued to force the state to make the full payments, arguing that a 2011 pension and health benefits reform law Christie signed requires the state to make the full scheduled payment.
On Wednesday, the board overseeing the New Jersey Public Employees' Retirement System, the state's largest public employees pension fund, voted to join the lawsuit.
A Superior Court judge in Mercer County is expected to hear arguments in the case on June 25.
Whatever the court decides will likely be appealed, but Singleton said the ruling could give legislators more direction as they begin budget negotiations with the administration.
“We’re sort of watching for what the legal system tells us,” he said, adding that most Democrats appear steadfast that the full pension payment must be made for the upcoming fiscal year.
Democratic leaders have discussed raising income tax rates on New Jersey’s top earners. However, Christie has promised to veto any tax increase.
That might force lawmakers to make some drastic spending reductions to keep the budget in balance and keep the state’s promise to pensioners.
“If we’re not going to have a conversation about expanding revenues, then we’re going to have to make some painful cuts. … It’s a menu of bad choices,” Singleton said, noting later, “I don’t think there’s a scenario where we pass a budget without the full payment.”
Moving forward, Singleton said that he’s open to additional reforms to public employees pensions and benefits, but that their unions need to be included in those discussions.
“That conversation needs to happen, but (the unions) need to be at the front of the line,” said the assemblyman, who is a leader with the state’s carpenters’ union.
In addition to discussing the state budget crisis, Singleton spoke at length about legislation he penned to boost manufacturing jobs and reform the state’s charter school laws to make the schools more transparent and to give the public more of a voice in the approval process.
Among the bills in the manufacturing package is a measure to create a pilot program in which adult education and workforce development classes are taught at county vocational schools, as well as another to create tax credits for companies that in-source business into New Jersey from outside the United States.
“If you want to bring jobs from outside the U.S. into our area, we need to utilize our tax code to help,” Singleton said.
He has also proposed a sunset provision on the tax credits to make sure businesses create the jobs promised in the tax deals.
“I see the jobs, but I’m also cognizant of what (awarding tax credits) does and means to our budget,” he said.
The charter school package does not require voters to approve the creation of a charter school in their home district, but it does mandate that the public be a major factor in the decision. His bills would also give charter schools access to facilities aid and special education funding, but require them to enter into performance contracts.
“We’re trying to promote transparency and accountability while recognizing we’re not going to get rid of charter schools,” Singleton said.