New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine yesterday in his annual state of the state speech called for level property-tax increases and urged borrowing for open-space preservation while asserting his commitment to steer the Garden State through tough economic times.

During the nearly 50-minute address, Corzine highlighted his administration's achievements to date and said the state's current fiscal challenges, including a 6.1% unemployment rate, are his top concern. On Jan 2, the governor announced $800 million of spending cuts and proposed tapping into $500 million of funds previously allocated toward paying down long-term debt along with rainy-day and fiscal 2008 surplus funds to help close a $2.1 billion deficit in the budget for fiscal 2009, which began July 1.

"Getting our state through this national economic crisis is my number one, number two, and number three priority," Corzine said before a packed statehouse. "Current economic circumstances dictate that we take steps which in normal times I would not. It is regrettable that over a period of at least 15 years, when the sun was shining and the economy was strong, New Jersey failed to put its financial house in order, particularly our public pension system."

The governor said he would remind the state's Local Finance Board to strictly enforce New Jersey's 4% cap on property tax increases as 80% of reporting municipalities last year were over the 4% limit and 30% had property-tax increases of 10% or more.

In response to Corzine's address, Republican lawmakers pointed to spending reductions they proposed more than a year ago. Assembly Republican budget officer Joseph Malone, R-Burlington, said the administration needs to implement tax freezes at all levels and review state purchasing procedures.

"For three years in a row, Republicans have identified billions of dollars of wasteful spending, including $1.3 billion last year alone," Malone said in a prepared statement. "And for three years [the governor] and Democrats have ignored our proposals."

In addition to curtailing property taxes, the governor briefly mentioned funding for open space preservation and called upon all legislators to create a ballot measure that would support forests, parks, and open spaces.

"It is my preferred approach that we put in place a long-term funding solution. That said, we need, at minimum, an interim bonding question for November's ballot to extend the financing the voters approved in 2007," Corzine said.

Voters agreed to $200 million of borrowing for open-space initiatives in the November 2007 general election.

The governor, who faces re-election this fall, said he would push for tougher laws to eliminate pay-to-play and wheeling, along with no-bid contracts at all levels of government. In addition, Corzine announced that state Comptroller Matthew Boxer will evaluate posting New Jersey's expenditures online to facilitate greater transparency in the state's budget, a suggestion raised last month by GOP members.

Corzine is set to release his proposed fiscal 2010 budget in March.

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