Taking account of N.J. budget input from advocates, organizations

 Assembly budget committee holds hearing on N.J. state budget plan (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

Assembly budget committee holds hearing on N.J. state budget plan (Phil Gregory/WHYY)

As they examine Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed $34.5 billion budget plan, New Jersey lawmakers are hearing from residents, advocates and organizations with ideas on what should — and what should not — be included.

While the state doesn’t have much money available to provide additional funding for popular and effective programs, Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer said the governor’s proposal for increasing the tax on e-cigarettes could change that.

“So if there’s an appetite in the governor’s office to have new taxes for that, perhaps they have a appetite for new taxes in other areas that we’re not aware of,” said Schaer, D-Passaic.

Not likely, responded Republican Budget Officer Declan O’Scanlon.

“I can assure the chairman the governor will not have an appetite for tax increases in general,” said O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.

Bob Hage, board president of the ARC of New Jersey and the father of twin daughters with developmental disabilities, urged lawmakers to add $21 million to provide 3 percent raises for support workers who have not had an increase in six years.

“Parents should not have to worry about and distress about our loved ones every time their trusted direct care staff quits their job because the salary just isn’t enough to pay the bills,” he said.

Groups also made pleas to retain or expand funding for legal aid for the poor, shelters for battered women, and mandatory drug courts that provide treatment for addicts to keep them from going to prison.

In asking lawmakers to maintain the $4.5 million drug court program that nine years ago helped her kick her drug and alcohol addiction, Christine Michaels was blunt.

“Had it not been for this essential program which has made crucial impacts on thousands of lives, I would either be in prison or, worse, I would be dead,” she said.

What’s said at the public hearings does matter, Schaer assured those who testified.

“Sometimes, it is a reaffirmation of things that we already know,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s things that we hadn’t thought about, and tweaks can certainly be made in the budget, perhaps more than that.”

Democrats and Republicans agree New Jersey doesn’t have a lot of money to spare. They expect a bare-bones budget will be passed by the end of June that’s only slightly different from the governor’s proposal.

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