First budget hearing sees push for more child care funding, help for businesses
Lawmakers listen to constituents testify on what they believe should make it into this year’s budget.
During the nearly four hours that represented the first round of hearings on Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed $48.9 billion state budget plan, state lawmakers heard calls from advocates, business leaders, and constituents urging them to boost funding further.
In testimony before legislators, witnesses asked for everything from increased wages for child care and nursing home workers to larger investments in mass transit and mental health services. Others said they want more money to alleviate challenges faced by the state’s most vulnerable residents, including veterans, recent ex-offenders, the unhoused, and undocumented immigrants.
“Most of these challenges existed long before the pandemic, but let’s seize the opportunity in this budget to make needed funding adjustments,” said Jacques Hryshko, CEO of Family Connections, a nonprofit that supports survivors of domestic violence, abuse, and addiction.
Monday’s was the first of two hearings the Assembly will hold this week, and the Senate will have one March 29 (all residents are invited to comment). The fiscal year 2023 budget needs to be approved by the state Legislature and signed by Murphy before July 1.
Until then, everyone is fighting for what they think deserves to make it into what will likely be the state’s largest spending plan in history.
Child care troubles
Parents and advocates made child care a major topic of Monday’s budget hearing, noting the subject was largely absent from the governor’s March 8 budget address (he referred once to a child care tax credit).
Laura Palescandolo, a mother of two, highlighted the financial burden of childbirth, even for people who are insured. She paid $8,000 when her son was born at a hospital, and another $5,500 for a midwife when her daughter was born in 2020.
She returned to work six weeks after her son was born due to financial constraints. She has paid $15,000 in tuition for child care, and stressed about taking an early train home to pick him up before 6 p.m. Any later and she would have been hit with a late fee.
She urged lawmakers to put a cap on out-of-pocket childbirth expenses, broaden insurance coverage to include midwives, expand maternity leave, and standardize health care to ensure kids receive equal opportunities.
“Make child care a public good. That is the foundation of education of our youth. Let us work together to create a culture that prioritizes children and lays the foundation for families to thrive,” she said.
Many parents, particularly women, haven’t returned to work because of the lack of child care. A third of child care workers left the industry during the pandemic and didn’t return, with many finding jobs that pay them more.
Bendue James, a Newark resident who runs child care center Home Away from Home, said this doesn’t shock her, calling child care a thankless job that requires much training, and one that posed great risks at the height of the pandemic.
“Can you work for $40 a day for 12 hours, and pay your rent, and pay your bills?” James asked lawmakers.
Cindy Shields, of the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge & South Amboy, said her afterschool programs can serve only half of the kids they did pre-pandemic because of staffing hurdles. They have two bus drivers for five school buses, and classes are dark because there are no teachers.
“I and my fellow colleagues recognize the child care system is crumbling around us, and we don’t see how it can be saved without immediate relief,” Shields said.
There are also major disparities in child care costs depending on where someone lives. A Cumberland County family might pay $700 a month, while a Hunterdon County center costs about $1,400 each month, said the Rev. Sara Lilja, director of the Lutherans Engaging in Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey.
She said that’s unaffordable for families making ends meet while facing increased costs of living. And in a state where the Census Bureau reports the median income of a white family is $91,674 compared to $56,301 for a Black family, child care costs leave too many people out of the equation, she said.
Inflation hurting businesses
Some business leaders praised Murphy for what they like in his proposed budget, like expanded workforce development programs and no new taxes.
But with rising inflation, small businesses are even more at risk than when the pandemic started, they said.
“We need to do more to make New Jersey’s economy stronger in the spirit of affordability, which the Legislature and governor have prioritized this year. We urge the committee to consider the costs of doing business in New Jersey,” said Michael Egenton, executive vice president of government relations for the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce.
Hilary Trevor, manager of government affairs of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the $15 million proposed for the Main Street Recovery Finance Program — a fund supporting small and micro businesses — won’t be enough, and said there’s “little in tax relief” for businesses already facing unemployment insurance tax increases and short staffing.
Christopher Emigholz echoed her concerns, calling for a bigger increase in funding for the Main Street program (the budget plan proposes a 1.5% boost). He also criticized the current overall spending level in Murphy’s plan — a 41% increase from the current year — calling it an “unsustainable budget.”
Anthony Russo, president of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, suggested rolling back New Jersey’s corporate business tax, the highest in the nation, and using more of the state’s unused pot of American Rescue Plan funds to help businesses directly.
“Now would be a good time to ease the burden on our employers,” he said.
‘Affordable for who?’
Democrats statewide are pledging to make New Jersey more affordable. But progressives ask: Who is this budget really helping?
“With an unprecedented budget surplus, we have the tools to ease this pain, with direct cash relief for families who need it most,” said Peter Chen of New Jersey Policy Perspective. The progressive think tank is proposing a state child tax credit, an expansion of the earned income tax credit, and a replenishment of the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund.
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey noted the current budget slashes $2 million in funding for his New Jersey Reentry Corporation. At a time when people recently released from prison due to a COVID-related early release plan are looking for resources, re-entry programs need more money, not less, he said, adding the number of people seeking their services has nearly doubled.
He also called on boosting allocations for veteran assistance, particularly for additional addiction and psychiatric services. McGreevey invited the parents of a veteran who overdosed after his discharge from tours in Bahrain, Afghanistan, and Jordan to testify about the help they sought and couldn’t find.
“At the time he needed help the most, there was none for him. And there needs to be something for someone returning from the service who has gone through God knows what,” said Tom Duffy, sitting beside his wife, Dina.
Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, urged lawmakers to use the influx of federal dollars to address disparities in public programs, like expanding language access on government websites. Offices are using Google Translate — leading to inaccurate translations — and public websites don’t allow for characters not in the Roman alphabet, like accent marks.
She also urged the Legislature to retain the proposed funding for Cover All Kids, which would expand public health insurance to undocumented children. The funding meant for those children disappeared from last year’s budget plan after some lawmakers resisted approving it.
Murphy’s proposal includes a plan to pay $500 benefits to residents who file taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number — a method used by people without Social Security numbers, like undocumented immigrants. The amount won’t be enough, said Sara Cullinane of Make the Road New Jersey, who noted 35,000 people applied for the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund, another pot of money intended to help undocumented immigrants who suffered pandemic-related hardships.
“If we’ve learned one thing in the pandemic, it’s that our collective health and well-being as a state depends on everyone being able to access meaningful relief, health care, and have the financial means to quarantine,” she said.
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