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Wide Array of Concerns Aired at State Budget Hearing in South Jersey

Legislators hear about issues of particular interest to residents of southern part of the state

Assemblymen Gary Schaer
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic and Bergen) and his Assembly Budget Committee held a public hearing yesterday in South Jersey.

Many counties in South Jersey have unemployment rates that are higher than the state’s overall average. The region is also home to two of New Jersey’s neediest cities, Camden and Atlantic City.

But it also has large rural areas and a good portion of the Garden State’s farming community. That means the concerns of South Jersey residents tend to be a bit different than those of their neighbors in the north, where there are larger cities, bigger companies, and a heavy emphasis on commute times into New York.

In order to learn more about how “the other half” lives, members of the state Assembly Budget Committee went down to South Jersey yesterday to hear firsthand about the issues important to that region.

The nearly four-hour public hearing in Collingswood was the latest to be held this month as lawmakers continue to review the $34.8 billion budget that Gov. Chris Christie has proposed for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Some of the issues raised yesterday were also brought forward during a similar hearing held in North Jersey last week, such as Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed distribution of state funding for K-12 public schools and for higher education.

But others were more specific to South Jersey, including concerns about homeless prevention, open-space and farmland preservation, and the continued impact of funding cuts for family planning and women’s health services provided by Planned Parenthood.

Christie’s proposed budget calls for overall spending to increase by $1 billion. Most of that new money would cover rising public-employee pension and healthcare costs. The budget essentially calls for flat funding for education, property tax relief and municipal aid, and it doesn’t rely on any tax hikes.

Kathleen Davis, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, told the committee members that her organization “supports the budget,” including plans for roughly $250 million in projected savings from changes in public-worker healthcare coverage. She also outlined the results of a recent survey of chamber members on the current state of the economy in South Jersey.

“Employment remains flat. There’s modest growth in sales and activity, and tepid employment projections,” Davis said.

Poverty and housing

She was followed a few minutes later by Joyce Campbell, associate executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Trenton. Campbell stressed the need for lawmakers to continue to focus on efforts to help those living in poverty. And the issue of housing, she said, remains a major one.

“Over the 20 years I’ve been at Catholic Charities, without a doubt across all of the services -- and we serve almost 100,000 people a year -- the ability to afford housing and to have housing in a safe environment has been our number one issue,” Campbell said.

She called on lawmakers to provide more funding for rental assistance and to block any raids of the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Concerns about affordable housing were also raised by Sean Brown, founder of the Camden-based Young Urban Leaders. He said young people who want to stay in the city are finding it difficult to locate safe and affordable places to live.

“There are very few spots that fit that description,” Brown said.

And he also asked the lawmakers to work with him on efforts to make it easier for college students who’ve been forced to pause in their education to get back into school with restored financial aid. In Camden alone, he said, roughly 9,000 young adults over age 25 have started college, but have not finished their degrees. Working through the readmission process with community colleges can be a challenge, he said.

“I think this is low-hanging fruit,” Brown said.

Impact of Planned Parenthood cuts

Camden is being affected by Christie’s decision to cut $7.5 million in funding for family planning and women’s health services, according to Lynn Brown, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey.

The reduction in Planned Parenthood funding started during Christie’s first year in office, in 2010, when the state was in the middle of a recession. At the time, Christie said other health providers could provide the same services. But last year, while seeking the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination, Christie said it was his opposition to abortion that inspired the funding cuts.

Even with the proposed overall $1 billion increase in spending this year, Christie’s proposed budget calls for continuing the cutback for another year.

“Ninety percent of our patients fall at or below the federal poverty level,” Brown said. “That’s who we’re serving.”

And at the same time the funding has been cut, recent statistics indicate sexually transmitted diseases were up statewide by nearly 30 percent, and higher in some counties, like Burlington County, she said.

“The impact of family planning budget cuts has been devastating,” she said. “Some patients lost their services immediately when the cuts came.”

But Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) told another member of the public who asked for the restoration of the $7.5 million in funding if he knew of anyone specifically who had not been able to find adequate services after Planned Parenthood lost its state aid. O’Scanlon said it appears that federally qualified health centers have simply picked up the slack.

“Bring me specific folks who are having difficulty accessing care,” said O’Scanlon, the committee’s ranking Republican member. “I’m interested in helping people get the access to the care that they need.”

Funds for open-space preservation

The hearing also covered issues important to the more rural sections of South Jersey, including areas still dominated by farmland and open space. Thanks to past voter-approved bond issues, as much as $200 million had been spent annually on preservation efforts. But now the state relies on less funding provided through a ballot question approved in 2014.

A new funding bill is currently moving through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, though Christie earlier this year vetoed a prior version.

Right now, there’s no money at all for farmland preservation, Burlington County farmer Roger Kumpel told the committee.

“We think it’s very critical right now for open space,” Kumpel said. “To keep the momentum for a project we started many moons ago.”

Megan Tinsely, policy director for New Jersey Audubon, urged lawmakers to keep an eye out for funding in the state Department of Environmental Protection budget that in the past has been diverted away from open-space efforts to fund state park maintenance and to cover staff wages.

“This year’s budget appears to do the same,” Tinsely said.

More school-aid concerns

While the open-space issues didn’t come up at all during a similar hearing the committee held at Montclair State University last week, the panel heard from several more witnesses yesterday about how the state’s failure to fully fund its local school-aid law is impacting K-12 school districts across the state.

Representatives or parents from schools in Delran, Freehold, Lindenwold, Red Bank and Woodbury all came before the panel in Collingswood to ask for more equitable distribution of state aid, largely echoing concerns raised in North Jersey last week.

Michael Piper of Delran said his school district is short nearly $80 million over the last seven years.

“These problems must be addressed and remediated as soon as possible,” he said.

Michael Angulo, general counsel for Stockton University, raised a similar point about funding for higher education that’s in Christie’s proposed budget. Stockton’s enrollment is growing and the school is expanding into Atlantic City as part of a broader redevelopment effort aimed at helping to revitalize the troubled resort.

“Stockton’s Atlantic City campus will keep more New Jersey students in New Jersey,” Angulo said. “Stockton’s growing public charge requires equitable state support.”

The legislative budget hearings are scheduled to continue next week with a meeting of the Assembly Budget Committee set for Monday at the State House in Trenton. The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee will hold its last public hearing on Tuesday at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

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