Speakers at Budget Hearing Get Messages Across — Despite 3-Minute Clock

John Reitmeyer | March 21, 2019 | Budget
Students, parents, teachers explain how funding cuts will hurt districts, while those getting more cash celebrate new lease on educational life. Millionaire’s tax, other topics explored as well

Credit: NJTV News
millionaires tax
Despite a proposed increase in overall funding for K-12 education, several school districts will see their state aid cut under Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2020. Yesterday parents, teachers, administrators, and students from many of those districts showed up in force in Trenton to make sure lawmakers understand how aid reductions would impact their lives.

The cuts threaten class sizes, after-school activities, foreign-language instruction, busing, and other services, according to the many people who appeared before the Assembly Budget Committee as it held a public hearing in the State House.

“It is sad to ponder what might happen to a town without fully functioning schools,” said Courtney Matash, a teacher with the North Warren Regional School District, which is one of the districts due to see a cut in state aid under Murphy’s budget proposal.

“I just beg you to reconsider and think about the children at North Warren,” Matash said.

Not everyone loses

But others spoke at the hearing in favor of the current school-aid formula, which was tweaked by Murphy and the Democrats who control the Legislature nearly a year ago in an effort to create more equity overall. Thus, while some districts are losing aid as a result of the changes, others are gaining more funding through the budget, and their representatives also attended yesterday’s hearing to call for a continuation of the current funding policies.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t just school funding that elicited testimony during the nearly five-hour hearing. Lawmakers also heard concerns about the public-employee pension system and mass transit, as well as pitches for and against Murphy’s proposal to levy a true millionaire’s tax in New Jersey.

In all, Murphy’s $38.6 billion budget for fiscal 2020 would increase spending by about 3 percent compared with last year’s budget. Most of the proposed increase would be spent on a record $3.8 billion contribution to the public-employee pension system. Other proposed new spending includes $206 million in direct aid for K-12 education, $68 million for preschools, and $25 million for New Jersey Transit.

While the increased funding for what’s known as “formula aid” for K-12 districts pushes that line item to almost $8.7 billion — equal to more than 20 percent of total spending — it’s also the source of yesterday’s discontent. Under the funding changes enacted last year by Murphy and lawmakers, the total amount of aid to the districts is being redistributed amid the overall increase.

Most notably, districts that are still receiving “adjustment aid” that was supposed to be phased out years ago are slated for new cuts. More than a dozen will lose over $1 million each, according to the initial aid figures released by the Murphy administration.

‘A victim’ at Toms River?

Dave Healy, superintendent of the Toms River Regional School District, told committee members yesterday that the state’s new approach to school funding ends up making his district “a victim of our own efficiency.”

Toms River is among a group of eight districts that has already filed suit against the state to challenge the new funding law, which is known as S-2. Yesterday Healy called on lawmakers to hold separate hearings on the complicated school-funding issue to dig deeper into what he sees as several technical flaws in the policy.

“I wish I had more time,” he said after a buzzer went off indicating he had gone over a three-minute limit to testimony that was strictly enforced.

Zachary Dougherty, a Toms River High School senior, was among a group of students who also attended the hearing.

“Students, when they show up, they really care,” he said. “I don’t think anything is set in stone and we can work to find a better place.”

Redressing inequities

But the whole point of the new school-aid law, which was championed by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), was to reverse inequities caused by years of underfunding in many school districts that were consistently shorted during the tenure of former Gov. Chris Christie. Representatives of the districts that were underfunded packed last year’s hearings to press the case for reform, and they ultimately prevailed when S-2 was enacted by Murphy last summer. Some came back yesterday to share stories about how the increased funding now is benefitting students.

“We purchased books for the first time in years,” said Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm, a member of the Kingsway Regional School District’s board of education.

“Your work on this issue will change the trajectory of (the students’) educational lives forever,” she added.

Despite the focus on school aid, members of the committee also heard from a long list of people who used their three minutes to seek more state funding for a number of different causes and pet programs.

Dave Pringle, representing Clean Water Action, praised the Murphy administration for finding more than $1 billion in savings while also scaling back diversions from programs like the state’s Clean Energy Fund. But he said more work needs to be done and urged lawmakers to embrace the millionaire’s tax proposed by Murphy, which would extend the state’s top-end marginal rate of 10.75 percent down to earnings over $1 million to raise an estimated $447 million.

“You need to be brave and do the millionaire’s tax,” Pringle said. “The people want it.”

So far, legislative leaders have resisted Murphy’s call for the tax increase, suggesting there are still more places to find savings. And it’s the Legislature that has the sole authority under the state constitution to advance tax hikes, so Murphy will need to get their cooperation to enact the millionaire’s tax.

Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, asked lawmakers to continue to hold firm against the tax increase as it would hit small businesses and entrepreneurs who he suggested may appear wealthy “on paper.”

“In relation to the size of this proposed budget, the revenue from this tax increase is minimal,” Egenton said. “However, the impact that it will have on our job creators would be tremendous.”