POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

At budget hearing, public pleas for funding as lawmakers look for savings

BY Joanna Gagis, Producer/Correspondent |

The impassioned pleas came one after the other, people asking members of the Senate Budget Committee to fund their programs, their schools and their commutes.

“We must begin to increase state funding for transit at a greater rate and in a sustained manner. We believe the proposed budget should be increased by at least real $100 million, a 4 to 5 percent increase, if we want to make more substantial progress in addressing what New Jersey’s mass transit customers need,” said Chip Hallock, president and CEO of Newark Regional Business Partnership.

Some asked for restoration to school aid that was cut last year as part of the School Funding Reform Act, citing the effects of massive cuts.

“Including the elimination of 232 staff members and vacancies, 150 of which are classroom teachers. Programs that were established to meet priority needs will be cut to the tune of $52 million. These cuts will devastate our schools,” said Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund.

Others decried the recent minimum wage increase and the impact it’ll have on them.

“Once minimum wage goes up, we will be beyond the crisis. We need $54 million of state funding to increase salaries for the direct support professionals. We must, we must, be 25 percent above minimum wage to be competitive,” said The Arc of New Jersey Executive Director Thomas Baffuto.

And of course, no budget discussion would be complete without talk of a millionaire’s tax.

“By including a true millionaire’s tax, it asks for those who have benefited the most from our excellent New Jersey schools, strong economy and federal tax cuts to contribute their fair share so everyone can look forward to a better future,” said Steve Beatty, secretary-treasurer for the NJEA.

But even among the Senate Committee, you’ll find differing points of view on that issue.

“If we’re going to tax someone, let’s tax the millionaire and not the working families of New Jersey. I don’t think we can keep taxing our people because, simply, we are losing the middle class,” said Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez.

“There’s many folks who are opposed to having any tax. If we were to oppose the millionaire’s tax, to find the additional savings in the budget, cuts and savings to offset that, and then allow the governor to have his billion dollar surplus. Listen, we’re at a really good starting point,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo.

The hearing is the first of two public hearings the Senate Budget Committee will hold. The next one will be at the end of March in South Jersey where more constituents will ask for more money from a Legislature that says the priority is to find savings in this year’s budget.