BUSINESS & ECONOMY

Assembly Committee Kicks Off Budget Season

By David Cruz
Correspondent

It is an annual rite of spring that attracts a long list of leaders from all manner of organizations that depend on the state for critical funding. Today was the first of what will be several public hearings on the state budget. It can be a long and often unexciting process, which requires a stern task master in the chairman’s seat, someone to keep more than 70 speakers in line.

“If we exceed four minutes by a half a minute with one person, the next person will want a minute and by the end of the day we’ll be up to an hour, which is of course beyond this committee’s ability,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, chairman of the Budget Committee.

And the chairman wasn’t kidding, giving the hook to even a revered former chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

“Thank you so much. Thank you as always for your work. Thank you for the work that your organization does on behalf of New Jersey,” he said.

The testimony — from organizations covering issues from mental health, the environment, education and more — had a familiar ring.

“The ability of providers to keep up with salaries for direct support professionals has been seriously compromised,” said Dan Keating, executive director at the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens With Disabilities.

“We were very disappointed that the governor reduced the funding for partnership grants in fiscal year ’17 and eliminated all of the funding for adult education,” said Judy Savage, executive director at the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

“We were disappointed that yet again there was no increase for direct support professionals. It’s been a decade since we’ve seen any increase,” said Tom Baffuto, executive director at The Arc of New Jersey.

“It’s never easy. It’s not as if there’s a lot of spare revenues, if you will, that will allow prioritization to things that we care about. It makes it even more difficult with revenues tight,” said Assemblyman John McKeon.

“Our budget is a mess because we haven’t enacted reforms that need to happen in order to right our fiscal house and that has to start with another round of pension and benefits reforms and other fiscal reforms that many of us have been advocating for for a while. Without that we’re never going to be able to address the issues you’re raising — legal services, Medicaid and nursing homes. We can say that about everything,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon.

“The budget that’s introduced is never the budget that’s adopted and that’s what this budget process is about. We’ll be able to not only hear from the residents of the state of New Jersey but we’ll get the commissioners in. We’ll scrutinize their individual budgets and then the final budget will be negotiated and we’ll see what happens at the end of June,” Assemblyman Anthony Bucco said.

But the difference between the budget that’s introduced in March and the one that gets voted on by June 30 will be measured in inches and not miles because, in general, whatever the governor says, budget wise, goes, and Democrats will have to pick their budget battles well.

“We need to get that stem cell research center to develop spines for the Legislature, and we’ll have to see because this is a year where standing up and fighting back is going to matter,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.

If there is to be a budget fight, consider this round one. And this guy, the timekeeper at the bell.