As state lawmakers weigh which budget items they will seek more funding for in negotiations with Gov. Chris Christie, a key legislator has identified cancer research as a priority for reinstating funding not included in Christie’s spending plan.
The issue could become a sticking point in budget negotiations.
Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary S. Schaer (D-Bergen and Passaic) said restoring $1 million that Christie diverted from the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research is a priority because it could attract $10 of additional federal and private research funding for each dollar that the state spends.
The budget proposal includes $44 million for cancer prevention and research, but that is $28.4 million less than currently allocated.
The difference is due to reductions in two items that were added by the Legislature last year: $23.8 million to complete construction of the new MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper in Camden was reduced by $18.4 million to $5.4 million.
And $10 million for the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick was cut entirely.
Democratic Assembly members have expressed concern about the elimination of the $10 million for the institute, as well as the absence for the second straight year of the $1 million for the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research.
The commission awards grants for cancer research. A 2007 report said that these researchers have used each dollar of state funding to attract more than $10 of private funding, a point emphasized by legislators. The state law that established the commission in 1982 said the state must appropriate $1 million for it each year, but Christie has used his authority to divert this money to the general fund each of the past two years.
During a recent Assembly budget hearing, Democratic Assembly members expressed concern about the effect that these annual diversions are having.
Christie addressed cancer funding in a radio show earlier this week, saying that it is among the budget items that is being crowded out by the state’s public employee pension and health benefit payments.
Schaer said yesterday that restoring cancer funding is a priority because “we’ve been investing so many dollars in our university system in order to get more research dollars from the federal government and other sources.” He noted that the Assembly’s priorities in budget negotiations would be determined by Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Bergen and Hudson).
“This kind of research promotes the kind of New Jersey that all of us have been talking about and investing in,” including attracting well-paying jobs, Schaer said.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said that specific funding levels would be subject to negotiating the final budget. He added that “the broader point here being made by the governor [is], when you’re spending 94 cents of every new dollar of state spending on public employee pensions and health benefits, as well as debt service, there is very little to even discuss to begin with when it comes to new investments and spending decisions. So far, the Legislature has shown no willingness to address the problem, let alone acknowledge that a problem exists to begin with.”
Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly (D-Bergen and Passaic) said he was disturbed by the lack of funding for the commission for the second year, noting that researchers are able to leverage state funding to apply for federal and private research funding.
“These are drastic cuts that put individuals, their families, and life-saving programs and research at risk,” Wimberly said in a statement. “This cancer funding and research should not be on the expendable list in any budget. However, it seems to have made the nonessential list under this administration two years in a row.”
Department of Health officials emphasize that cancer prevention and research is a priority. The $44 million total for cancer and prevention funding makes it the department’s third-largest budget area, after $560 million for charity care and $135 million for Early Intervention Services, which provides screening and therapy for babies and toddler who are developmentally delayed.
Christie highlighted one piece of that $44 million in cancer funding in his budget address in February. He said that the budget protected “increased funding for cancer screening,” referring to state funding for the New Jersey Cancer Education and Early Detection Program (NJCEED)
In the 2012-2013 fiscal year, Christie added $3.5 million in state funding for the program, and has preserved that money in his budget proposal. Health Department spokeswoman Donna Leusner noted that this resulted in an additional 4,500 women being screened for breast, cervical or colorectal cancer. The program served more than 25,000 low-income residents last year, she said.