(Adds Democrats’ remarks starting in sixth paragraph.)
Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a critic of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, called for expanding Medicaid in his state as he proposed a $32.9 billion spending plan ahead of his re-election bid.
The budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes a $1.6 billion pension payment as it raises spending by 2.3 percent and delays property-tax rebates. Christie’s plan counts on revenue rising by 4.9 percent, a smaller increase than last year, when the Republican’s predictions for more than 8 percent growth were challenged by Democrats and Standard & Poor’s.
Christie, 50, joins at least seven other Republican governors who have agreed to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, after Florida’s Rick Scott said last week that he supported doing so. Five of the governors backing expansion -- Scott, John Kasich of Ohio, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Rick Snyder of Michigan -- come up for re-election next year.
“Let me be clear, I am no fan of the Affordable Care Act,” Christie said during his budget speech. “I fought against it and believe, in the long run, it will not achieve what it promises. However, it is now the law of the land. I will make all my judgments as governor based on what is best for New Jerseyans.”
Christie proposed expanding Medicaid by adding 104,000 clients to the state’s program, which already serves 1.4 million, to save taxpayers $227 million in fiscal 2014. Federal money will cover the cost for the first three years.
The move will add three times the number of clients Christie counted and will create health-care jobs, according to Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from East Orange. She attributed the governor’s changed stance to the budget savings.
“There is no way, in a state like New Jersey, the governor could walk away from Medicaid expansion money,” Oliver told reporters.
Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, a Democrat from Cherry Hill, said Christie failed to present a cohesive plan for mending the state’s economy. New Jersey had a 9.6 percent unemployment rate in December. Democrats want to see lower property taxes and more job creation, he said.
“There’s about 1 percent of this population that is doing better,” Greenwald said. “We are three years into this experiment and it has not borne fruit.”
New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states with governor’s races this year. Christie’s approval among voters rose to a record 74 percent in January, up from 56 percent before Hurricane Sandy struck, according to Quinnipiac University polls. Even among Democrats, who outnumber registered Republicans by 703,000, his rating rose to 56 percent.
The governor praised Obama’s response to Sandy ahead of Election Day in November, angering some Republicans who blamed him for the Democratic incumbent’s win over Mitt Romney. In January, Christie attacked fellow Republicans in Congress for delaying a vote in the House of Representatives on disaster aid.
Christie spoke last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s Chicago-area conclave. He wasn’t invited to the group’s 2013 Washington meeting because of his Obama praise and his criticism of House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, according to a person familiar with the lineup, who asked not to be identified and isn’t authorized to speak publicly about internal group decision-making.
On Nov. 26, Christie said he’s seeking a second term to oversee the $36.9 billion job of rebuilding from Sandy. Democrats, who control the Legislature, have said Christie is using the storm to deflect economic concerns. New Jersey’s December jobless rate was the fourth-highest in the nation.
In his budget address a year ago, Christie predicted that the state’s economic rebound had begun, making a 10 percent income-tax cut manageable. Democratic lawmakers refused to sign off on his plan, saying the state couldn’t afford it. Christie today continued to urge the legislature to pass the reduction.
“New Jersey has turned around and is growing again,” Christie said today.
S&P revised its outlook on New Jersey’s debt to negative from stable in September, citing Christie’s “optimistic” economic assumptions, an unfunded pension liability and the use of nonrecurring revenue to close shortfalls.
Christie’s reliance on such one-time revenue sources would fall to 3 percent of the spending plan in fiscal 2014, from 4 percent in the current year and 13 percent in 2010, according to Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff.
In his speech today, the governor said the fiscal stalemate in Washington is “nothing short of inexcusable.” Obama and Congress are locked in a standoff over how to avert $1.2 trillion in spending reductions set to take effect starting on March 1. Christie proposed a $40 million contingency fund for Sandy expenses that aren’t reimbursed by the federal government.
“This will ensure that we can move ahead with maximum speed, and that those things that fall through the cracks do not bankrupt families, businesses or local governments,” he said.
The governor proposed raising school aid by $87 million to almost $9 billion, a second-straight annual record. He also plans $2 million to fund a pilot voucher program for students in failing schools, and $5 million to implement new teaching models, including the use of technology and the Internet.
--Editors: Stacie Sherman, Ted Bunker