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N.J. Budget Aims To Please Court, Satisfy Tax-Cut Promise

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Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey proposed a budget last week that increases state aid to poor school districts while cutting funds for wealthy suburban districts.

The Republican Governor also promised in her budget message to complete a 30 percent cut in the state income tax by next year, one year ahead of the schedule she promised as a candidate in 1993.

"Why wait until next year to keep a promise we can keep right now?" Mrs. Whitman asked during the Jan. 23 budget address.

She carried out the first half of the promise last year, an achievement that she said has led to job growth and an overall improvement in the state's economy.

Governor Whitman delivered her budget message one day before she stepped into the national spotlight to deliver the Republican response to President Clinton's State of the Union Message. In that speech, she built on the theme that G.O.P. lawmakers carry a bold political agenda reflecting some of the most important new approaches to public policy.

Court Mandate

The Governor's $16 billion budget proposal includes a $181 million increase in direct aid to public schools. The biggest beneficiaries would be the state's "special needs" districts. These poor districts would receive a $100 million increase in aid.

Mrs. Whitman acknowledged that the proposed boost in aid is an effort to comply with an order from the New Jersey Supreme Court to close a spending gap between the state's 30 poorest districts and its wealthiest ones.

In a lawsuit known as Abbott v. Burke, the state high court gave lawmakers until the 1997-98 school year to close the gap, but it called for progress to be made in the 1995-96 budget.

"As we increase foundation aid to special-needs districts by $100 million to comply with the supreme court mandate, we will have less flexibility in funding other districts," the Governor said.

Critics have argued that Mrs. Whitman's income-tax cuts have led to increases in local property taxes to make up for the reductions in state funding.

"That simply isn't so," the Governor maintained in her address. "Property taxes reflect local spending decisions."

Among the losers in Mrs. Whitman's budget are an estimated 177 well-to-do districts that would see a cut in their "transition aid"--a pool of money set up to slowly wean the districts away from state aid.

The proposed budget reduces the amount of transition aid from $57 million in fiscal 1995 to $38 million in fiscal 1996.

James H. Murphy, the president of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said the budget is not as generous to districts as the Governor contends, when proposed cuts in transportation and desegregation funds are factored in.

"It's like a shell game," he said.

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