Budget panel hears pleas for added funding

Posted: March 21, 2013

Gov. Christie's proposed $32.9 billion budget prompted requests for more money but didn't generate loud outcry among the nonprofit, health care, and business leaders who spoke at a public hearing Tuesday at Camden County College in Camden.

Their requests - which ranged from polite to pleading - largely addressed the continuing effects of past, not current, cuts.

Though their budgets may not have been pared further, some told members of the Assembly Budget Committee, who were conducting the second of three public hearings in the state, that the cumulative toll of the cuts had severely impaired the ability of their agencies to function.

"Without these funds, we are going to close our doors," said Jose Ramos, who asked that the state give $225,000 to the Spanish American Social Cultural Association of New Jersey, restoring funding to its 2009 levels.

The association, which provides social services to immigrants, has seen its budget slashed 75 percent since 2009, Ramos said, and he has spent $40,000 of his own money keeping it afloat.

"There is no more," Ramos said. "Please help me."

Other groups asking for more money included Battleship New Jersey, ACCSES New Jersey, which serves people with disabilities and has 37 member agencies, and a union representing nursing home workers.

Decreased Medicaid reimbursement rates have hurt nursing homes, particularly in the state's urban areas, where the percentage of Medicaid patients can top 90 percent, said Justin Braz, political coordinator for 1199 SEIU.

While "we understand this is an extremely tough fiscal climate," Braz said, he asked the committee to double the state's budget for nursing homes to just over $50 million.

Others who testified didn't make specific financial requests. Janna Chernetz, New Jersey advocate for the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, expressed concern that the state had no sustainable funding source for transportation projects and said new revenue options needed to be considered, including the gas tax.

"This conversation is not being had," Chernetz said. The discussion sparked an argument between several Democrats on the committee, including Assemblymen Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) and Gary Schaer (D., Passaic), and Christopher J. Brown (R., Burlington).

"It makes perfect sense to borrow and bond for a long-term capital improvement," Brown said, questioning the rationale for raising taxes.

Prieto told Brown that he was "as in favor of [raising the gas tax] as you are." But, he said, "I'm in favor of a fiscally solvent trust fund."

Not everyone who testified had a complaint. Business leaders praised the budget for holding the line on taxes and spending.

"In the current economic climate, this is extraordinary," said Kathleen Davis, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey.

The Assembly committee's last public hearing is planned for April 9 in Newark.

Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com

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