Residents of New Jersey’s cities need better schools, improved public transportation and more state funding for services like legal aid and lead abatement. In more rural and less affluent South Jersey, there have been calls for more state money for land preservation and affordable housing, while throughout the state residents have been asking for increased aid for K-12 school districts.
Now, it’s up to lawmakers who are in the middle of reviewing the budget Gov. Chris Christie proposed last month for the state’s next fiscal year to balance all of those concerns as they work on drafting a new appropriations bill by a July 1 deadline.
In all, spending would go up by about $1 billion under the $34.8 billion budget that Christie has drawn up, but several key areas that directly impact cities would see flat funding or only slight increases.
That includes the state’s transitional aid program, which benefits New Jersey’s neediest cities. Direct aid for K-12 districts, including those in the poorest communities, would also go up only slightly under Christie’s budget plan.
And while funding for New Jersey Transit’s subsidy would also be increased, several of those who testified during a more than six-hour Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing held yesterday at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark said the state must commit more funding to public transportation.
Cities face tough problems
The budget hearing — the final one of five that Senate and Assembly lawmakers have held this month as they continue to review Christie’s budget, came at a critical time for many of New Jersey’s cities.
For example, Newark is facing an ongoing lead-poisoning problem in its school system, Paterson is struggling with severe school-funding concerns, and Atlantic City is looking at a possible city shutdown next month due its significant financial struggles.
Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, told the committee members the state needs more than patchwork funding for mass transit. She called for a “long-term transportation funding plan.” The lack of investment in New Jersey Transit hits city residents the hardest because they often don’t have other means of transportation.
“That’s people who rely on mass transit to get to work, to get to school, and to get to their much-needed health appointments,” Chernetz said.
New Jersey’s lack of stable funding for its Transportation Trust Fund is also a big concern, she said. The trust fund spends more than $3 billion annually on road, bridge and rail improvements, but right now it will run out of money by the end of June unless Christie and lawmakers can figure out a way to extend it.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Chernetz said. “There is a funding crisis.”
Mayor Joseph Tempesta of nearby West Caldwell also urged lawmakers to prioritize the trust fund, which provides some of its resources to municipalities to help keep local roads in good shape.
“If we lose that aid, that’s going to directly affect the local property taxpayer,” said Tempesta, who is also the president of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.
Several lawmakers said they understand the concerns about transportation funding and were working on ways to address the problem.
“Many municipalities have stopped investing in their infrastructure,” said committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge). “You have to keep up a strong infrastructure.”
Concerns about infrastructure
Concerns about investment in other types of infrastructure, including school facilities in Newark, were also raised during the hearing. Earlier this month, local school district officials started providing students with bottled water in dozens of city public schools after elevated levels of lead were detected. The exact source of the contamination has yet to be found, but officials are concerned about old lead plumbing and lead solder in fixtures.
Toni Granato, program assistant for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Christie administration has diverted money away from environmental programs. Those funds “could be used to remove lead from the schools here in Newark and elsewhere,” Granato said.
She also referred to Christie’s decision earlier this year to veto lawmakers’ attempts to restore $10 million in funding for lead-abatement efforts.
“The governor is balancing the budget on the backs of the environment and the people here in New Jersey,” she said.
Leah Owens, a community organizer with New Jersey Communities United, asked the lawmakers to show more urgency in getting funds approved for school-facility upgrades in Newark.
“I wish I had no reason to be here today,” Owens told the lawmakers. “What is happening is a disenfranchisement of the community.”
That drew a response from Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), who said the responsibility for issuing bonds for school upgrades through the state Schools Development Authority ultimately falls on Christie’s administration.
Concerns about programs for needy
Others who testified before the committee shared their concerns about funding for programs that benefit the state’s neediest residents, including legal services and housing programs.
Claudine Langrin, senior vice president of Legal Services of New Jersey, said funding for her organization is not keeping up with demand, a concern many of the lawmakers said they shared.
“We can’t forget in many of these cases a skilled lawyer makes all the difference in the world,” said Sen. Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex). “I think we have a duty to fund it.”
Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said the state is also facing an “unprecedented crisis in housing.”
Christie’s budget doesn’t fund the state’s Emergency Assistance program as much as it has in prior years, and new time limits have been established for recipients.
“The reality is, the need doesn’t go away just because you stop helping,” Rice said.
After the hearing ended, Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts defended the governor’s budget, pointing to the increased in aid for schools and level funding for municipalities. He also said the Christie administration’s continued expansion of Medicaid has “resulted in hundreds of thousands of poor and working poor obtaining health care who previously did not have it.”
Roberts also said the state could realize more savings by making changes to public-employee benefits, including healthcare plans and civil-service rules.
“In a world where the overwhelming amount of revenue growth goes to public-employee entitlements and debt service, this budget protects priorities in our cities,” he said. “I expect the people of Newark might want to question their legislative representatives about what they intend to do about that.”
With the public hearings on the budget now finished, lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate over the next several weeks will begin meeting in Trenton with individual cabinet members to dig deeper into the departmental spending proposed for the next fiscal year.
Lawmakers will have the option of passing Christie’s proposed budget or drafting their own appropriations bill and sending it to the governor for consideration. Their work must be wrapped up by the end of June because the state constitution sets a deadline of July 1 for a new budget to be in place.