Burlington County resident John Russo, with some assistance from his wife, Loretta, leaned into a microphone yesterday and urged lawmakers to boost a state grant that helps family members care for people like him who suffer from the debilitating neurogenerative disease ALS.
The current state budget provides $250,000 to the ALS Association for family-care services, and advocates are seeking an increase to $500,000 in the spending plan for the 2019 fiscal year.
“I want you all to understand that the money is well spent on a deserving group of people,” Russo said as he outlined challenges many patients face when they lose mobility, bringing on a need to install things like ramps at their homes. That enables them to stay at home, where they can be cared for by loved ones, instead of having to move into expensive care facilities.
Russo’s plea for more funding was one of many during yesterday’s Assembly Budget Committee hearing in the State House. Despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget increases for many social-service programs, as might be expected from a Democratic administration, there are many who say they’re still not enough.
The hearing was the first in a series of four that lawmakers in both the Assembly and Senate are holding over the next few weeks as they begin to sift more closely through the $37.4 billion spending plan that Murphy proposed earlier this month for fiscal 2019.
Other speakers called on the lawmakers to increase state aid for many other programs, including for K-12 school districts, signaling the issue of school funding is once again shaping up to be one of the top budget items that lawmakers will have to wrestle with over the next several months.
There’s a new wrinkle this year in response to Murphy’s spending proposal, with concerns being raised about a series of tax hikes that the first-term Democrat is seeking as his overall budget calls for $2.7 billion in new spending. That stands in contrast to the last eight years under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who prioritized tax cuts. Murphy has called for a new tax rate of 10.75 percent on incomes over $1 million, a return to a 7 percent sales tax from 6.625 percent, and changes to the corporate tax code. Yet another proposal is a call to establish a 75 percent tax rate on the sale of e-cigarettes.
“This tax would just devastate our industry,” Mark Anton of the New Jersey Vapor Rights Coalition said yesterday. “Our stores would close.”
In all, Murphy’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year would increase state spending by nearly 8 percent compared to the budget for the current fiscal year, which was enacted by Christie last July.
Repairing public pension system
A major chunk of the increase would go to the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system. Direct state funding for K-12 education, known as “formula aid,” would also be increased by nearly $284 million. Other funding increases are planned for public preschool, college-tuition assistance programs, and New Jersey Transit.
But it’s Murphy’s handling of the education-funding issue that drew the most attention during yesterday’s hearing. Christie never fully funded the state’s 2008 school-aid law during his two terms in office. By contrast, Murphy’s budget calls for reaching full funding over four years, starting with this year’s increase in formula aid. Murphy’s plan drew the praise of officials from the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, who testified yesterday.
“NJEA has consistently supported the funding formula and believes it should be followed every year,” said Steve Beatty, the organization’s secretary-treasurer.
Others who testified on the school-funding issue highlighted a series of inequities that developed under Christie’s education-funding practices, which have left some districts receiving far less aid than they should according to growth in enrollment. Murphy’s budget proposal does not fully address that problem as most school districts will still get some form of an increase in aid, which leaves less money to catch up those that remain extremely underfunded.
Hurting certain students, taxpayers?
“It hurts our students and it hurts our taxpayers,” said Jared Rumage, the superintendent of Red Bank Borough Public schools.
Adding to the debate is whether some districts should be given top priority for getting what additional aid Murphy is making available, especially as communities with high levels of poverty like Paterson continue to face cutbacks and struggle to maintain aging facilities.
“Our children also need that opportunity, and that’s all that we ask for,” said Robert Scott, president of the Paterson Parent-Teacher Organization.
While turf battles over school funding are nothing new for Trenton — and no universal solutions were revealed yesterday — lawmakers did signal that Murphy’s budget proposal won’t be the final word on the issue this year. The hearings mark only the beginning of a lengthy budget-review process that will culminate in late June with the drafting of a formal spending bill.
“What is presently presented to us will not be what we finish with,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester).
“I think all of us are together on this issue,” Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Morris) said during the discussions on school funding.
Tax hikes, anyone?
Meanwhile, Murphy’s proposed tax hikes were also addressed at yesterday’s hearing, as some groups that have long been calling for tax hikes and increased investment after Christie prioritized tax cuts now sense they have an ally in the governor’s office.
Ann Vardeman, representing New Jersey Citizen Action, told lawmakers a 10.75 percent tax rate that Murphy wants to levy on earnings over $1 million would help combat growing income inequality in New Jersey.
“The rich have been getting richer, and the poor have been getting poorer,” Vardeman said.
But Anton, from the state vaping group, urged lawmakers to shelve Murphy’s plan to levy a 75 percent tax rate on e-cigarette distributors and wholesalers. That’s part of a broader proposal that would raise $65 million in new revenue from tobacco taxes. Federal health officials are concerned about the growing popularity of e-cigarettes among teenagers, but Anton claimed that e-cigarettes have helped some people quit smoking, which is something lawmakers agreed with when Christie floated a similar proposal.
“We think that this is more about a public health issue,” Anton said.