At first public hearing on Murphy budget plan, those hardest-hit by COVID-19 call for more help

Published March 11, 2021
By John Reitmeyer

Residents and advocates go on record as needing more help from state

State lawmakers heard repeated calls to increase aid for those hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic during the first public hearing Wednesday on Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to expand the state budget to nearly $45 billion.

Residents and issue advocates who testified using a virtual format due to the lingering health crisis asked for more funding for programs that assist low-income residents, including those who’ve suffered job losses or have been unable to find affordable housing.

They also sought more state aid for those dealing with mental health issues and addiction problems, and for seniors, veterans and those with disabilities who’ve struggled with isolation during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“We need your help,” said Nina Bachrach, chief executive officer of Bergen Volunteers, a group that works with youths, seniors, veterans and economically disadvantaged residents in Bergen County.

Going public with budget plan
Such public hearings were put on hold altogether last year due to the health crisis. But this year lawmakers have scheduled four hearings using an all-virtual format to review the $44.8 billion budget plan Murphy has proposed for fiscal year 2022, which begins on July 1.

While total spending is due to increase year-over-year by more than 10% under Murphy’s proposed budget, yesterday’s hearing highlighted several areas where no funding increases are planned, or where advocates say the needs in their communities outpace proposed increases.

And at the start of the hearing, Assembly Budget Committee Chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) detailed ways the pandemic has been impacting her community in recent months.

“I’ve seen a loss of jobs and people trying to work to make ends meet,” she said. “We clearly have our work cut out for us as a budget committee.”

In all, Murphy’s budget plan would increase spending by more than $4 billion year-over-year. But it’s now up to lawmakers to draft and approve an appropriations bill before July 1 that can make additions or subtractions from Murphy’s own budget proposal.

Fully funding public-worker pensions
A big chunk of the new spending Murphy seeks will cover a proposed step-up to full funding of the state’s annual public-worker pension contribution. The increase from $4.7 billion to $6.4 billion would end a more than two-decade practice of underfunding what the state’s actuaries would consider to be a full payment.

Murphy is also calling for increased spending on higher education, small-business assistance and offshore wind generation, among other areas. He’s also seeking to expand New Jersey’s Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers and a state child care tax credit. But unlike past years, Murphy, a first-term Democrat seeking reelection, hasn’t proposed any tax hikes.

Despite plans for a nearly $580 million increase in state aid for K-12 schools that is known as “formula aid,” the Murphy administration would continue to underfund New Jersey’s school-aid law under the governor’s budget.

Nyha Mathis, president of the Paterson Schools’ parent-teacher organization, suggested her district is among those that would still be underfunded even as it is facing issues related to digital infrastructure and concerns about learning loss that have been triggered by the pandemic.

“Our district is in great need and could use additional support,” Mathis said.

Meanwhile, there are school districts that are considered “overfunded” under current state law that are due to lose state aid in fiscal year 2022.

Toms River School Board member Alexander Mizrenko said his district is once again facing a state-aid reduction, and he urged lawmakers to intervene.

“This is all happening while we face rising costs to keep our children and staff safe,” Mizrenko said.

County colleges seek more funding
Camden County College president Donald Borden praised Murphy’s budget for once again funding a tuition-aid program for low-income county college students, but he also urged lawmakers to do more to increase operating aid for county colleges.

“We believe that this proposed budget does not go far enough,” Borden said.

Meanwhile, environmentalists pressed lawmakers to end a proposed diversion of $82 million from the state’s Clean Energy Fund. One of the programs that is supported by the fund helps low-income residents reduce utility bills by implementing energy efficiency measures.

“There is money there for the governor and the Legislature to value and prioritize these programs,” said David Pringle, a member of the Empower NJ environmental coalition.

Cuts to affordable housing
A proposed $20 million diversion from the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund was also raised as a concern by advocates for low-income residents, who noted those in minority communities have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

“We know that Black and brown residents have had the most pressing housing needs,” said Staci Berger, president and chief executive of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

And while representatives of business-lobbying groups praised Murphy’s decision to balance his proposed budget without any revenue from new taxes, they called for more funding for things like workforce development and small-business assistance — especially since the state is now due to receive billions of dollars in additional aid from the federal government.

“While we are grateful for the funding that has already been provided, we know that there is still clearly a demonstrated need for more assistance if our economy is to survive and bounce back,” said Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

The next virtual public hearing planned by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee is set for March 16. Those seeking to testify can register online.