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As Racial Makeup of State Shifts, Black Caucus Wants to Ensure All Needs Are Met

Legislative group -- comprising only Democratic lawmakers -- identifies tax credits for working poor, funding for education among top priorities

sen. ron rice
Credit: NewsWorks.org
Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), chairman of the state Legislature's black caucus.

Federal population figures show that New Jersey is becoming an increasingly ethnically diverse state, and that its urban areas are starting to grow at the same time many suburbs are shrinking. The potential impact of those shifting demographics is not something being overlooked by members of the state Legislature’s black caucus.

Leaders of the group of African-American lawmakers note there will come a day when New Jersey becomes a “majority-minority” state, meaning the majority of residents will be ethnic or racial minorities. In some counties that’s already the case, and one recent study suggested the statewide shift here will happen during the 2020s.

So as the black caucus focuses on its agenda for the next fiscal year -- with issues like tax credits for the working poor, education funding, and lead-paint abatement highlighted as top priorities -- the lawmakers are making it clear that their agenda is one that lines up with the needs of a growing number of New Jersey voters.

“As you see us moving forward in New Jersey, these issues will be important to the majority of the residents of this state,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Essex).

And as more and more people who haven’t traditionally dominated New Jersey elections start participating in higher rates, Oliver predicted there will be a “changing of the guard in the State House.”

“It’s going to influence and drive public policy,” said Oliver, the first African-American woman to serve as Assembly speaker in New Jersey.

The black caucus counts 18 lawmakers among its ranks, a full 15 percent of the overall 120-member Legislature. And the group’s members said their focus for the next few weeks as a new state budget comes together before the fiscal year starts on July 1 is to ensure that their communities’ needs are getting attention.

To that end, longtime Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), the group’s chairman, said the black caucus will be advocates in budget debates for the state’s poorest citizens and low-wage workers, as well as seniors, the disabled, and the middle class.

“These New Jerseyans cannot be left out of the state’s budget, nor any federal and state governments’ economic recovery funding and programs,” Rice said.

“The voices and votes of the members of the New Jersey legislative black caucus must be the unified voice and vote (for) New Jersey residents who have the least and suffer the most as we plan and implement programs in New Jersey intended to provide a better quality of life for residents,” he said. “Their needs cannot be ignored in the decision-making process as we deliberate and debate how to fix our state’s problems.”

The black caucus has identified a number of priority issues, something it’s done each year for nearly a decade. They include affordable housing, job training, and the rising cost of college in New Jersey.

State funding for hospitals and local school districts, as well as lead-paint abatement programs, are also concerns for the group. And the black caucus said boosting the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and the higher-education Equal Opportunity Fund are other key initiatives members will be advocating for.

“These are the things that we’ll be fighting for to make sure that there is fairness in the process and to make sure that our members are respected,” Rice said.

In many cases, the priorities of the Legislature’s Democratic leadership line up with those of the black caucus, whose members are all Democrats. For example, both the black caucus and the Democratic leadership have said the state must fund the public-employee pension system at a level that was promised in a 2011 pension-reform law enacted by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, in cooperation with Democratic leaders.

But Christie has since walked away from the pension-contribution payment schedule that was a key part of that reform effort, which is regularly referred to as Chapter 78. And the $33.8 billion budget Christie proposed back in February includes $1.3 billion in funding for the pension system, not the $3.1 billion state contribution called for in Chapter 78.

“I’m encouraging my members to stay together on this to make sure that Chapter 78 is funded,” Rice said.

The black caucus also has Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) on board with its goal of increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. Christie trimmed the size of the credit, which goes to the state’s lowest-wage earners, not long after taking office in 2010.

Sweeney has incorporated a restoration of Christie’s cut in a bill he introduced last month that also calls for increasing the income-tax rate on earnings over $1 million to bring in more money for the pension system.

But some black caucus members noted that there have been times when the Democrats who control the Legislature haven’t been as vocal as they would like on other important issues, including the state’s handling of urban schools, raids on affordable-housing funds, and cuts to food-assistance programs.

“If we are 18 votes in the Legislature, we support every geographic area and their agenda, we want the same level of support from our Democratic colleagues to support issues that are of importance to us,” Oliver said.

In the past, the black caucus has flexed its collective muscle in the State House by withholding votes for key legislation and those seeking leadership positions until there were assurances that the members’ legislative priorities would get attention. And that can happen again, warned Rice, as several key issues could come down to close votes, in addition to the state budget in the final days before the new fiscal year begins.

“The relationship overall is good, but it needs to be enhanced,” Rice said. “It’s communication that’s going to make the difference.”

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