Senate’s first budget hearing signals a rocky road ahead

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, and today is the first step,” Sen. Paul Sarlo said.

It’s officially the kickoff of New Jersey’s budget season. Thursday’s gathering of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee puts the process in high gear. And yes, you should expect speed bumps.

“New taxes always should be the last resort and new revenues should be the last resort,” Sarlo said.

Which is tough, considering the governor’s proposed budget relies on more than $1.6 billion in new taxes to fund his priorities. First issue at bat: the controversial school funding formula.

“The current distribution of state aid fails to address the gap between the have and have nots,” said Red Bank Borough Public Schools Superintendent Jared Rummage.

Murphy plans to reach full funding for K-12 education over four years, calling for an increase to formula aid by $284 million. But his plans don’t account for which districts get priority for aid, leaving others to catch up.

“We just ask for a level playing field. That’s what we’re looking for. We’ve been underfunded by $252 million,” Lavonne McEarchern, vice president of the Paterson PTO.

“People are happy that we’re making inroads toward having a plan to fully fund the formula, but there are still huge inequities in how we’re distributing the money. There are districts that are overfunded at the expense of ones that are woefully underfunded,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz said.

Meanwhile, plans to make pension payments and increase funding to NJ Transit may go nowhere fast if the Legislature doesn’t get on board with a millionaire’s tax or a corporate tax hike proposed by Senate President Steve Sweeney, who surprisingly backed off that idea this week.

“It’s a huge budget. This is a huge budget and huge budget increase,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon. “I wonder where unions are, had Christie increased the budget by over 7 percent in any given year and not dedicated every penny to an acceleration of pension payments. I think it’s safe to say unions would have been apoplectic. So far, not a peep.”

O’Scanlon chastised colleagues for failing to look at state worker health benefit reforms instead of more spending. It’s a measure he says would save the state billions.

“We are being extraordinarily reckless by not talking about those things up front,” O’Scanlon continued.

Which could be good news for others who testified today. Even ardent Murphy supporters weren’t spared from fiscal cuts.

“The child care subsidy rate has remained flat for 10 years,” said Cynthia Rice from Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

“It’s inexplicable that anyone with the mental health problems that we’re facing in this country would take $20 million out of our mental health system,” said Phillip Lubitz, Associate Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness New Jersey.

So despite this being the largest budget in state history, many worthy organizations say the $37.4 billion might still not be enough. With revenue totals all but uncertain until late spring, it’s just the start of what promises to be a long budget season.

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