TRENTON – Even a nearly $49 billion state budget plan can’t head off every concern and plea for funding.

The Assembly Budget Committee held the first public hearing on Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed fiscal 2023 budget Monday. Most speakers were complimentary of the blueprint, which includes no new tax hikes, some fee holidays, and a robust revenue flow that allows most groups’ wishes to be included.

But some speakers nevertheless had suggestions for additional spending. For instance, social service agencies told lawmakers they’re being pinched by inflation and a shortage of direct support professionals.

Dov Felder said the New Jersey Adult Day Services Association is looking for a 12% increase in rates as facilities deal with a worker shortage and “staggering” cost increases.

“Costs have risen anywhere from 14% to as much as 56% for supplies or costs of transportation,” Felder said.

Valerie Sellers, chief executive officer for the New Jersey Association of Community Providers, said agencies caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a 37% staff vacancy rate.

She said that is “due to DSPs leaving when the $3 an hour hazard pay was no longer available and a departure of a significant number of DSPs attributed to the mandated vaccinations.”

Reentry program bigger than prisons

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey asked lawmakers to more than reverse a funding cut that would affect the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, the nonprofit agency he chairs that helps former inmates and others transition back into society.

McGreevey said the agency is receiving $9 million in the current state budget but that it would drop to $7 million in fiscal 2023 under the spending proposal. He is asking for $3.4 million to be added, given that the program’s participants have increased nearly 73% since 2019, as more than 6,250 inmates have been granted early release from state prisons during the pandemic.

“Indeed, there are more persons enrolled in NJRC than there are in state prisons in New Jersey,” McGreevey said.

Just over $1 million of that increase would go toward programs for veterans with other than honorable discharges. Tom Duffy, whose son was discharged from the Marines for drug use and later died in 2016 from an overdose, said there needs to be assistance available.

“At the time again when he needed help the most, there was none available for him,” Duffy said.

'NJ roads are not safe'

Kate O’Connor of Families for Safe Streets New Jersey and the Vision Zero New Jersey Alliance urged lawmakers to add $750,000 to the budget that would be used to address the spike in traffic fatalities.

O’Connor said her brother, Jimmy, was hit by a drunk and speeding driver in a crosswalk outside his apartment, suffered a traumatic brain injury and died two years later at age 27. She said his death was preventable.

“New Jersey roads are not safe, and it’s literally killing us. And it shouldn’t take a tragedy to happen to your brother, friend or child for it to be taken seriously,” O’Connor said. “… We need to aggressively tackle this issue now, before more people die, and before you’re holding your loved one’s hand in a hospital bed.”

Last year, 701 people died in car crashes in New Jersey, the most since 2007. So far this year, traffic fatalities are running 10% ahead of last year. More than 600 people had died in only three of the prior 13 years.

O’Connor said the state needs to design safe infrastructure, engage local communities and “put safety over speed – finally.” She said the state needs a Vision Zero task force, a public data portal so people can understand where crashes happen, support to get more police agencies to use the state’s new crash reporting system and more safety staff at the state Department of Transportation.

“Vision Zero is not a slogan or a tagline. It’s a different approach to traffic safety, and New Jersey really needs it,” O’Connor said.

Unemployment debt tops $710 million

Business groups reiterated at Monday’s first public hearing on the state budget that although there aren’t new tax hikes in the budget, their unemployment tax is already scheduled to go up in July – unless the state uses federal funds to avoid it.

“We respectfully ask that the state Legislature follow the lead of 30 other states, enact that legislation as part of the budget process, and fully replenish the UI fund,” said Michael Egenton, executive vice president for government relations for the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce. “To not alleviate the issue would create a tax increase, adding to the business community’s pandemic-related burdens.”

Peter Chen, a senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, urged lawmakers not to do it, saying those funds should be spent on direct assistance to frontline workers and low-income residents.

“A giveaway to the UI fund is a corporate tax break, and it’s a blanket one that helps both profitable and unprofitable businesses,” Chen said.

The state’s unemployment fund is currently $710 million in debt to the federal government. Business taxes are due to go up this July and next July as part of replenishing that fund.

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Child care remains a concern

Among the other recurring themes at Monday’s first public hearing on the proposed state budget, brought up by four speakers, is that Murphy didn’t mention the problems facing the child-care industry in his budget speech, such as low pay for workers.

“Not paying our qualified early childhood educators at parity is what is too expensive because without it, centers will continue to close and parents will pull from the workforce, straining our economy even more,” said Meghan Tavormina, president of the New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children.

Budget documents note the state is allocating $700 million in federal funds to help parents pay for child care, provide bonus pay to child care workers, and distribute grants and increase support for child care providers.

They say that this year, Murphy will propose using federal COVID recovery funds to create a pilot program to support child care affordability for families by encouraging small business owners to provide child care benefits on behalf of their employees.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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