As New Jersey lawmakers kick off 2024, advocates are looking for some economic relief

New Jersey is often singled out for having the highest property taxes in the nation, as well as a high cost of living.

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The New Jersey state capitol building dome as seen through a gap in several buildings.

The New Jersey state capitol building in Trenton, N.J. (Evelyn Tu for WHYY)

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With the onset of the new year, New Jersey leaders are figuring out their legislative focus for the coming months. Citizen groups and experts are also weighing in on what lawmakers ought to prioritize. But how much will the legislature accomplish in a Presidential election year? Will advocacy groups have their wish lists fulfilled?

For Dena Mottola-Jaborska, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a healthcare expansion plan for lower-income New Jerseyans is a top priority so that residents can access programs such as Medicaid. She said the state’s Family Leave program also needs expansion so people can care for sick family members or welcome a newborn without added stress.

“We’re working on some changes to the program that will make it more accessible for low-income and moderate-income people,” she said

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New Jersey Citizen Action is also advocating raising the state’s minimum wage, which just increased to $15.13 an hour on January 1. Mottola-Jaborska said the initiative would help low- and moderate-income families build wealth and disposable income.

Affordability has always been a top issue for the state. New Jersey has been singled out for having the highest property taxes in the nation, and several studies have found that the Garden State also has one of the highest costs of living.

Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University in Camden and director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, said there will be continued efforts to provide residents economic relief, stability, and security.

Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said lawmakers launched a series of programs to support residents last year, including a senior citizen property tax reduction plan. He said the legislature will be trying to find money for many big-ticket programs and services.

“Funding for New Jersey Transit, school funding, and school regionalization might take on a new importance, we’re looking at potentially the re-funding of the Transportation Trust Fund,” he said.

But the biggest challenge for the legislature in 2024 will be managing what is widely considered a slowing period of economic growth, Dworkin said.

Mottola-Jaborska said her organization is trying to get the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program improved so that very low-income families can get higher benefits.

“We’d like to see it increased because we see it as a program. I think most people hope it’s a program that helps people get out of poverty,” she said. “But if the benefit is so tiny, people just continue to struggle.”

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program used to be known as welfare.

Mottola-Jaborska noted that New Jersey Citizen Action is also supporting so-called “Fair Auto” legislation that would help struggling families afford auto insurance.

She said many companies currently use credit scores to set auto insurance rates, and lower-income residents frequently have lower credit scores, which pushes rates higher.

Dworkin said he expects hurdles in getting some of these measures adopted by the legislature because much of the focus in the state will be on the Presidential race.

“Trying to rally the public around an entirely new initiative in a Presidential year can be tough, just because all of the public discussion space is really going to be taken up by the race for the White House,” he said. “So it makes it a more challenging environment in which to conduct big (state) public policy.”

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Dittmar agreed most New Jersey voters will be focused on policy debates taking place among the Presidential candidates on the national level, which may spur state leaders to enact legislation on issues such as reproductive rights.

“It could be addressing issues around social welfare and benefits, you know whether it be for LGBTQ communities or advance racial equity, those kinds of things we’re seeing be pushed to a more conservative or limited direction in other states,” she said. “They (New Jersey legislators) may decide to put forth certain protections or firewalls, and claim our jurisdiction as a state, in case the outcome of the next election is not aligned with the Democratic majority in New Jersey.”

Governor Murphy, State Senate President Nick Scutari, and Assembly Speaker Craig Caughlin declined to comment on their priorities for the new year.

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