The very first bill passed by the New Jersey Senate this year would reverse a budget cut initially made by former Gov. Chris Christie eight years ago that Democrats have objected to every year since. The bill to give $7.45 million to women’s health centers became something of a crusade among Democrats, who scoffed at Christie’s original explanation of a cost-cutting move.
A second bill, passed by the upper house on Thursday, looks forward and would open up free or low-cost health services to even more women, bringing in an additional $9 in federal funding for every $1 the state spends and expanding family planning services to more low-income women, according to Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen and a sponsor of both bills.
Since Christie first cut grants to Planned Parenthood and other women’s clinics, six health centers have closed and others have cut staff and services, while the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases has risen by more than a third. Bill sponsors are hoping to reverse those trends.
“This day has been eight years in the making, and today we are finally going to pass legislation that we can reasonably expect will be signed,” Weinberg said on the floor of the Senate just before the vote. “We’re going to begin to reverse the trend we have seen and begin to improve accessibility to family-planning services for women, women who can go to family-planning centers to get screening for breast cancer and cervical cancer, who can get birth control so they can prevent unintended pregnancies.”
Passing the bills (and ) at the very start of the new session, in which they will almost assuredly be signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy.
While the $7.45 million to be spent on access to health services at Planned Parenthood and other centers represents only 0.02 percent of the entire state budget, Christie had vetoed that spending from his first budget, and vetoed multiple subsequent attempts by Democrats to restore that money during his time in office. His decision appeared to have been as much influenced by his anti-abortion stance — although none of the money can be spent on abortions — as in later years, his presidential aspirations.
Christie and state health officials had defended the cut and said that women were able to get care at other low-cost facilities, including dozens of Federally Qualified Health Centers.
Despite having bipartisan support, at least in the Senate, lawmakers could never muster the votes to override Christie’s vetoes, and it became a rallying cry for legislators like Weinberg, a frequent Christie adversary. The funding was an issue in at least a couple of campaigns last year in districts where Democrats picked up seats.
“This is not only responsible health policy, but is a smart fiscal policy for the state,” said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), who made a campaign issue of former Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck’s voting record on the issue on his way to unseating her last November. Beck supported spending the money more often than not during Christie's tenure, but Gopal highlighted several no votes she had cast in 2013 and 2014, as well as her refusal to override Christie's veto of the funds in 2010 after she had voted to place them in the budget. “For the past eight years, New Jersey has been negatively affected by preventing residents’ access to women’s health care … I am proud to support these bills and look forward to their becoming law.”
The Senate voted 29-9 to add a $7.45 million supplemental appropriation in the current state Department of Health budget to provide grants for family-planning services. Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset), was a bill co-sponsor, and it had bipartisan support on the floor of the Senate.
Senators also passed the second bill yesterday, in a bipartisan manner, with a 34-5 vote. That measure seeks to recoup a lost opportunity since the enactment of the federal Affordable Care Act. It would provide Medicaid coverage for family-planning services to individuals with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level — up from the current 138 percent — bringing more federal dollars into the state. Extending Medicaid eligibility to more women would provide increased access to family-planning services and address substantial disparities and coverage gaps.
“Family planning services are vital to the health of New Jerseyans, and the state has left millions of dollars on the table in Washington because of the decision by the Christie administration to veto our legislation,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer). “I’m glad we are finally turning the page and moving forward with funding these services and getting money from the federal government that is available to us and that we should have been receiving for years.”
The Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey has been fighting for years to restore the lost money for the health centers and both campaigned and spent money last fall backing Gopal and other candidates supportive of spending state dollars on women’s health. PPAFNJ officials held a press conference with legislators before Thursday’s vote and applauded the Senate action.
“Now we urge the Assembly to once again pass this bill and stand up for women’s rights,” said Christine Sadovy, PPAFNJ’s legislative and political director. “However, we cannot stop there. For New Jersey to be a leader when it comes to reproductive care, our elected officials must continue working to ensure that every woman and family in our state has access to the care they need to be healthy.”
Both bills now go to the Assembly, where a comfortable Democratic majority would seem to make their passage likely. Murphy has promised to restore the $7.45 million for women’s health centers and also was supportive generally on the campaign trail of seeing that women of all incomes have access to necessary care and to birth control.