First budget hearing pushes for more funding for child care, helping businesses

In the nearly four hours that represented the first round of hearings on Governor Phil Murphy’s proposal $48.9 billion state budget plan, State lawmakers have heard calls from advocates, business leaders and voters urging them to increase funding further.

In testimony before lawmakers, witnesses called for everything from higher wages for child care and nursing home workers to greater investment in public transit and mental health services. Others said they want more money to ease the challenges faced by the state’s most vulnerable residents, including veterans, recent ex-offenders, homeless and undocumented immigrants.

“Most of these challenges existed long before the pandemic, but let’s take the opportunity of this budget to make the necessary funding adjustments,” said Jacques Hryshko, CEO of Family Connections, a nonprofit that supports survivors of domestic violence, abuse and addiction.

Monday was the first of two hearings the Assembly will hold this week, and the Senate will have one on March 29 (all residents are invited to comment). The fiscal year 2023 budget must be approved by the state legislature and signed by Murphy by July 1.

Until then, everyone is fighting for what they think is worth making into what will likely be the biggest state spending plan in history.

Child custody issues

Parents and advocates made child care a major topic of Monday’s budget speech, noting the topic was largely absent from the governor’s March 8 budget speech (he once referenced a tax credit for childcare).

Laura Paulus Gondolo, mother of two, pointed out the financial burden of childbirth, even for the insured. She paid $1,000 when her son was born in the hospital and another $5,500 for a midwife when her daughter was born in 2020.

She returned to work six weeks after the birth of her son due to financial constraints. She paid $15,000 in childcare tuition and insisted on taking an early train to pick him up by 6 p.m. Later, she would have been hit with late fees.

She urged lawmakers to cap childbirth costs, expand insurance coverage to include midwives, extend required maternity leave and standardize health care to ensure equal opportunities for children. .

“Make child care a public good. This is the foundation of the education of our young people. Let’s work together to create a culture that puts children first and lays the foundation for families to thrive,” she said.

Many parents, especially women, have not returned to work due to lack of childcare. A third of educators left the industry during the pandemic and have not returned, with many finding jobs that pay them more.

Bendue James, a Newark resident who runs the Home Away from Home child care center, said it didn’t shock her, calling child care a thankless job that required a lot of training and posed great risks at the height of the crisis. pandemic.

“Can you work for $40 a day for 12 hours, pay your rent and pay your bills? James asked lawmakers.

Cindy Shields, of the YMCAs of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy, said her after-school programs can only serve half of the children they welcomed before the pandemic due to staffing barriers. They have two bus drivers for every five school buses, and the classes are dark because there are no teachers.

“My colleagues and I recognize that the child care system is collapsing around us, and we don’t see how it can be saved without immediate relief,” Shields said.

There are also big disparities in child care costs depending on where someone lives. A family in Cumberland County could pay $700 a month, while a center in Hunterdon County costs about $1,400 a month, said Rev. Sara Lilja, director of Lutheran Ministry Engaging in New Jersey Advocacy. .

She said it’s unaffordable for families who manage to make ends meet while coping with the rising cost of living. And in a state where the Census Bureau reports the median income for 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, a she declared.

Inflation penalizes businesses

Some business leaders have praised Murphy for things they like about his proposed budget, such as expanded workforce development programs and no new taxes.

But with rising inflation, small businesses are at even greater risk than at the start of the pandemic, 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, government affairs manager for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed $15 million for the Main Street Takeover Funding Program – a fund supporting small and micro businesses – would not be enough. not, and said there was “little tax relief” for companies already facing hikes in unemployment insurance premiums and a shortage of staff.

Christopher Emigholz echoed his concerns, calling for a bigger increase in funding for the Main Street program (the budget plan proposes a 1.5% increase). He also criticized the current overall level of spending 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 cutting New Jersey’s corporate tax, the highest in the nation, and making more use of unused US bailout funds. State to directly help businesses.

“Now would be a good time to ease the burden on our employers,” he said.

‘Affordable for whom?’

Democrats across the state pledge to make New Jersey more affordable. But progressives ask: Who does this budget really help?

“With an unprecedented budget surplus, we have the tools to ease this pain, with direct cash assistance to the families who need it most,” said Peter Chen of New Jersey Policy Perspective. The progressive think tank proposes a state child tax credit, an extension of the earned income tax credit and a replenishment of the New Jersey Disenfranchised Fund.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey noted that the current budget cut $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, reintegration programs need more money, not less, he said, adding that the number of people seeking their services has almost doubled.

He also called for increased stipends for Veterans Aid, particularly for additional addiction and psychiatric services. McGreevey invited the parents of a veteran who overdosed after coming out of tours in Bahrain, Afghanistan and Jordan to testify about the help they sought and couldn’t find.

“When he needed help the most, there was none for him. And there must be something for someone who comes back from service and has been through God knows what,” said Tom Duffy, seated next to 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 use Google Translate – which leads to inaccurate translations – and public websites don’t allow characters that aren’t in the Roman alphabet, like accents.

She also urged the Legislature to retain proposed funding for Cover All Kids, which would expand public health insurance to undocumented children. Funding for these children disappeared from last year’s budget plan after some lawmakers resisted its approval.

Murphy’s proposal includes a plan to pay $500 benefits to residents who file taxes with an Individual Tax ID — a method used by people without a Social Security number, such as undocumented immigrants. The amount won’t be enough, said Sara Cullinane of Make the Road New Jersey, who noted that 35,000 people had applied for the New Jersey Disenfranchised Fund, another prize pool intended to help undocumented immigrants who have suffered to the pandemic.

“If we have learned one thing in the pandemic, it is that our collective health and well-being as a state depends on everyone’s ability to access meaningful relief, health care and have the financial means to self-quarantine,” she said.

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