BUSINESS & ECONOMY

Assembly Hears from Department Heads During Budget Hearing

By Erin Delmore
Correspondent

First they heard from the governor, then, from the public. Now, New Jersey lawmakers are hearing from department heads as they determine who gets what in the state budget.

On today’s agenda at the State House: assessing budget requests from the Department of Law and Public Safety and the Department of Children and Families. The Assembly Budget Committee heard from department heads for most of the day.

“Public safety for us, has got to be priority number one,” said New Jersey Attorney General Chris Porrino.

Porrino talked about what it takes to keep law enforcement rapid response ready, citing the bombs placed in Seaside Park last fall. He talked about implementing the state’s cutting edge bail reform system and about improving police-community relations.

“One 3-year-old girl who I approached — as I did with every child I met this morning — to give a high five or a handshake to or a fist pump, when I approached her, she looked away,” Porrino said. “And she looked up — 3 years old — and said, ‘I don’t like cops.’ And I will tell you that that moment, it struck me. And it hasn’t left me.”

On lawmakers’ minds during questioning: the state’s growing opioid addiction crisis.

“We’re prosecuting drug dealers and doctors who are acting like drug dealers. We’re investigating drug rings through our State Police. And we’re regulating on the civil side doctors and physicians and pharmacists and dentists. For the first time, we brought all of those disciplines under, effectively, one roof and created a small team that worked together as opposed to in silos,” Porrino said.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Allison Blake described a web of needs with a price tag to match.

“Sometimes families are evasive or uncooperative with our investigators. Getting medical reports is another challenge. These things complicate and delay investigations. Our intake staff has overcome these obstacles, reaching a new level of performance,” she said.

Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget weighs in at a whopping $35.5 billion — $1 billion higher than this year’s. Independent analysts say state tax revenue could come in some $200 million short of expectations, squeezing legislators as they decide who gets what in the appropriations process. More than a dozen department heads will go before the Assembly and Senate Budget Committees this spring.