New Jersey lawmakers are preparing to hold a series of budget hearings that begin next week.

(Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

"It's a long and an arduous process, sometimes a difficult process, but it's a necessary process to be able to hear from the people directly," said the chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, Gary Schaer (D-Passaic).

He said a total of four budget hearings will be conducted in different parts of the state, "so hopefully we're making ourselves geographically available to most New Jerseyans," Schaer said.

He said the hearings give Garden State residents a direct means to express themselves.

"Many times we're so often listening to budget numbers, that we forget who is behind those numbers: the families and the children that are being affected by the decisions we make," he said. "The hearings humanize the process and allow us to better understand priorities -- it's an excellent expenditure of time for everyone."

Schaer pointed out this year's budget will increase 3.5 percent to $34.4 billion, which means it will be the largest budget in the history of the state. But the problem is, most of the money will go to pay pension, health care and debt costs.

"It leaves relatively small amounts of funds, discretionary funds, to put where we want to put them, where we believe we need to put them," he said. "There's a lot that the budget needs to do, if we had another hundred billion we could certainly do it, but we'd have to quadruple our taxes and frankly no one would be left in New Jersey to enjoy the programs that we'd put into place."

The first hearing will be March 12 at Montclair State University, at 9:30 a.m.