POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Special Interest Groups Advocate for Funding at Senate Budget Hearing

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

There were no overarching themes at today’s Senate budget hearing. Just one good cause after another asking for more state funding, like Legal Services of New Jersey.

“The governor’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget contains a $5 million cut in legal services funding reducing its general revenue by approximately one third,” said former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz.

Most well represented was court appointed special advocates of New Jersey, which represents children in court cases.

“I am for the child,” their signs said.

“We are here to ask you to do what you have done every year for the past three, and that is restore the $850,000 cut in the proposed budget,” said Liza Kirschenbaum, associate director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Jersey. “Without this restoration we will return to our FY ’08 level of funding.”

The Arc of New Jersey wants a $1.25 hourly raise for direct care support workers who aid the intellectually and developmentally disabled.

“It’s the direct support professionals that are the backbone of providing those services. Starting salaries on average are $10.50 an hour,” said The Arc of New Jersey Executive Director Tom Baffuto.

The Sierra Club wants more environmental spending.

“Gov. Christie has cut environmental programs by 40 percent while methodically going after the budget,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Program Coordinator Toni Granato.

The NJEA wants more support for traditional public schools and less for charters.

“Gov. Christie’s proposed budget leaves much to be desired for several reasons,” said Osomo Thomas, NJEA government relations associate director.

The meeting was held in Sweeney country at the old Gloucester County College, now known as Rowan College at Gloucester County.

Senate President Steve Sweeney’s top priority this spring is fixing the school funding formula.

“I just want to put a few words in for school funding. I don’t think there is anything more important this year than trying to get school funding right,” Sweeney said.

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo thinks that will happen.

“I think the Senate’s there. I’m not sure where the Assembly is. The governor recognizes what he had talked about fixing a number for every student across the state. It doesn’t have any chance of passing the Legislature. But I believe the governor will work with the Senate on the Senate plan. I think the Assembly is starting to hear in all their budget hearings the same thing that we’re hearing,” he said.

Senate Republicans are not so sure.

“I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to get one that gets past the whole Legislature and through the governor’s office. I think it’s going to be something we’re going to be negotiating for quite a while,” said Sen. Steve Oroho.

Another big issue surrounding the budget this year is Christie’s proposal to dedicate lottery revenues to shoring up the pension system.

“I’m intrigued by the lottery question. The question of whether or not you take the lottery asset and you move it to the pension system and what does that mean to the long term stability of the pension system. I’m intrigued by it,” Sarlo said.

“I think it’s an intriguing idea. I want to make sure that we go through and we kick the tires and there are no unintended consequences,” Oroho said.

This week Christie started coupling that with a new round of cuts to public worker pensions and benefits.

“Before we can talk about pension reforms, let’s first agree on the mertis of the lottery system. Does it make sense or not?” Sarlo said.

Most of today’s speakers were paid professionals, sometimes known as special interests. Listening to them testify one after another, you realize the special interests are really just a cross-section of society.