TRENTON – The Assembly Budget Committee held its first hearing today to gauge the impact of Gov. Chris Christie’s budget vetoes on various social service programs.
Democrats who spoke kept making the point that with additional surplus – which they said is approximately $600 million – money should be restored to help shore up the various programs that saw funding cuts or remain frozen.
Advocates for a group that provides volunteers to help children placed in foster care requested the committee to restore funding to the level of funding from 2009.
CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates – help children who have been removed from terrible conditions at home and put into foster care. CASA volunteers also help children in court matters.
Officials with the group said 2,830 children in 19 counties were helped in fiscal year 2010. That is only a fraction of the 14,000 children who are in out-of-home placement, they told the committee.
A similar number were helped in 2011.
Officials requested some $289,000 be restored that was cut last year. That would bring CASA’s budget back up to approximately $1.15 million. Currently, it’s a little over $800,000.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, (D-3), of Paulsboro, called for the money to be restored, given the state has a higher surplus than last year.
“There is money to do this,” he said. “There is a need to do this.”
He called the lack of restoration of funds “an embarrassment.”
Assemblywoman Elease Evans, (D-35), of Paterson, said it was a shame that “a few dollars more” weren’t set aside to help more children.
“Shame on us if we can’t restore that,” she said.
Another speaker, Anju Dharia, of Princeton, said her son, Krish, 5, who is visually impaired, has not received Braille instruction over the past month. Some 20 teachers for the visually impaired (TVIs) were downsized, due to a budget cut and line item veto.
“Eliminating teachers is definitely not a reform,” she said. “We urge you to find alternate sources of funding.”
Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, (R-23), of Sparta, said they were told no layoffs would occur and that 17 of the 20 teachers would work on a 12-month schedule instead of a 10-month school year.
“I’d like to know why (he is not receiving instruction),” he said.
However, Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, (D-6), of Voorhees, said he remembers being told 20 teachers would be cut as part of a streamlining effort. He questioned the teacher cuts all along.
“It was not well thought out,” he said.
Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, (D-32), Jersey City, said, “I don’t know what world the budget cutters are living in.”
“The goal today is to beat up the administration,” Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, (R-12), Monmouth, said.
The Governor’s Office quickly struck back at the assertions made this morning by Assembly Democrats.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts issued a statement criticizing the Democrats, charging they continually claim the surplus is higher than it really is.
“The Democrats believe the budget surplus is $640 million – nearly $300 million higher than reality – when the fact is the Democrats do not account for programs that still need to be paid for.
“It’s history repeating as Democrats ignore reality and play a shell game with the surplus and revenue figures, all in order to put forward a fantasy budget that promises everything to everyone.
“The real surplus is under $400 million, at approximately $365 million. (Less if and when the Democrats act to restore Transitional Aid program funding along with the needed changes to statute for proper oversight of the program).
“This is because there are legally required programs that the Democrats did not account for in their budget in order to spend money that they didn’t have. The reality is that this money is already spoken for and is in fact being spent on legislatively mandated programs.”
The hearing today follows two days of failed veto override attempts by the Senate last week.
The Assembly hearings also come in the wake of a busy day Monday for the governor, who returned from two weeks out West and announced restoration of two key funds that he originally red-lined out of the budget: Transitional Aid being restored to $149 million, and $537,000 for the Wynona Lipman Child Advocacy Center in Newark.