Assembly Budget Hearings Kick Off Annual Season of Spending Debates

By David Cruz

Parents and public school advocates from Paterson showed up in force this morning to the Assembly’s first public hearing on the state’s proposed $34.8 billion budget. They were among the dozens of New Jersey residents and other interested parties to testify at the hearing on the campus of Montclair State University. Their goal? To get the attention of lawmakers who control the purse strings.

“They’re already short-handed,” complained Paterson parent Valerie Freeman. “I mean supplies, books, some kids can’t go home with books, but we have these consultants at $750 a day, some at $375 a day and some children can’t go home with the algebra book they need. It’s totally not fair.”

Paterson schools — which have been under state control since 1991 — had to lay off school staff and the city itself just avoided a shutdown of municipal services, such is the financial situation there. But what’s a budget hearing about if not money and speaker after speaker gave their pitches for funding their programs. From education to health care to mass transit, the pleas came one after the other, each vying for the attention of sometimes distracted lawmakers as Chairman Gary Schaer kept one eye on the clock.

“We have over 85 people who have registered to speak with us this morning,” he admonished. “Times that by four [minutes per speaker] and a few moments left over and it’s going to be a long day for all of us, and we want to give everyone the proper and equal respect that they deserve and their cause deserves.”

This is the first of what will end up being a total of 20 or so budget hearings. For some of the veterans it’s a case of pacing yourself. Some of the newcomers will even ask a question or two. But lawmakers say they approach these meetings with an open mind.

“These meetings you get energy from, information,” insisted Assemblyman John McKeon. “Life is about listening and learning, so I very much look forward to hearing what the people feel, and the ones who have the passion to take time out of their day to be here and let us know.”

But Assemblyman Anthony Bucco said differences definitely exist between Democrats and Republicans. “The Republicans would like to see some tax reductions; we’d like to see a budget that makes New Jersey more affordable,” he said. “Unfortunately some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle push additional spending, and from my position as a Republican, you can’t spend what you don’t have.”

This is just the beginning of the sometimes arduous annual budget process; lawmakers will take the next couple of months to pick over the spending plan, but ultimately, this budget belongs to the man with the red veto pen, whose power over the final numbers is absolute.