Fighting for Social Services Funding in State Budget

By Brenda Flanagan

“I didn’t have a place to go.”

Recovering heroin addict Tiffany Scaletti says one line item in the $33.8 billion state budget discussed with lawmakers today could mean life or death for her. Without a place to live in Trenton after completing rehab, the 27-year-old Integrity House client’s terrified she will end up back on the street.

“I’ve been raped, I’ve been beaten up, I’ve had my jaw broken. I’ve got four plates and two screws in my face,” she said.

“What these folks are going to need is supportive housing,” said Integrity House Senior Director Earl Lippardt.

Lippardt brought 30 clients including Tiffany from Integrity House, which must compete for budget dollars against other social services and large spending projects like roads and bridges. He told members of the Senate Budget Committee, “The supportive housing dollars can push someone who’s in this early recovery of a severe addiction over the hump — keep them out in the community and in recovery as they move forward and stop that homeless portion of their addiction cycle.”

“Once again, our state budget is in a crisis. This year, it’s the state pension system and the Transportation Trust Fund,” said Cynthia Rice of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Rice says it’s the eternal tension between the needs of infrastructure and the needs of individuals.

“That’s where the focus is, but the result is that the needs of thousands of children are placed on the budgetary back burner. While roads and bridges are important we recognize that, it’s important to the economic health of our state, so is the health and the development of our children,” she said.

“The nice thing about these public hearings is you get to put a face on some of our most vulnerable citizens — folks asking for just a few bucks to deal with a developmentally disabled child, to deal with addicts, whether it’s dependence on drugs or alcohol. And looking for government to give them that little bit of edge,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo.

Advocates did push funding for big ticket items like raising gas taxes to fuel the Transportation Trust Fund, which must borrow $600 million to make it through the next fiscal year.

“Borrowing the $600 million for 2016 is not finding a funding solution. It is the complete opposite. It is the complete avoidance of a funding solution,” said Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “And not tackling it head on has disastrous implications for the state.”

Other witnesses asked lawmakers to reform New Jersey’s so-called death taxes; to stop giving corporate tax breaks until the Christie administration produces data showing they actually work; and to finish constructing the Hudson-Bergen light rail.

“I’m asking for your support. I’m asking that you do the right thing not only for the people of Bergen County, but the people of Hudson County, and the people who want to continue to live and thrive here. Because that’s the gateway to New York City,” said Bergen County Executive James Tedesco.

Legislative budget committees have scheduled four more public hearings like this across the state. Expect these debates to intensify as the budget-making process ticks down to its June 30 deadline.