Lawmakers began vetting Gov. Chris Christie's week-old budget proposal Tuesday as the Senate Budget Committee held its first hearing on the fiscal 2014 spending plan.
David Brogan, first vice president at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, was among those who testified today.
He said Christie's $32.9 billion budget continues the implementation of a number of business-friendly tax cuts and incentives, such as the continued phase-in of the single sales factor to calculate corporate taxes, and a net loss carry-forward provision for small businesses.
"The fact that the governor has maintained his support for business, even in a difficult fiscal environment, reinforces the confidence the business community has in this administration," Brogan said. "The continuation of the bipartisan business tax reforms … creates the certainty and predictability that business owners need to make decisions about hiring, expanding and reinvesting in their business."
Much of the focus this morning was on health care and mental health.
Phil Lubitz, of the New Jersey branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said there's a lot to like in the budget, including the expansion of Medicaid coverage. But he said the state could do more.
"New Jersey's mental health services continue to be grossly underfunded, and we really should temper some of the excitement we have about increased access to insurance for mental health coverage with knowing that our mental health system is nowhere near prepared to take on additional services," he said. "That system is overwhelmed."
Jeanne Oterson, policy director for Health Professionals and Allied Employees, which represents some 12,000 nurses and other health care workers, said she's concerned about budget cuts at the state Department of Health, which she says have caused the agency to cut back on its hospital inspections. She said a strong Health Department is needed at a time of great change in the industry, with hospital consolidations and closures, and the growth of for-profit hospitals.
"I think we've moved to a department with less resources, less capacity — and at the same time is less transparent," she said.
Another worry came from Alison E. Gammie, a senior lecturer in molecular biology at Princeton University. She noted the governor's 2014 spending plan would eliminate funding for the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research, a 30-year-old agency that helps fund early-stage research into the disease.
Gammie said the federal government tends to provide funding only once scientists can show positive results from early research. She said the state-funded early research ultimately makes New Jersey more hospitable to industry and more competitive when it comes to recruiting top faculty.
"By educating and supporting cancer researchers, we are feeding this really important industry in New Jersey," she said.
One of the most lively moments of the morning session came when Jill DeMaio, a mother with children in the Monroe Township school district, spoke about the level of funding her school is slated to receive next year, $2.6 million. That's $3 million less than the amount the district is supposed to receive under the state's school funding formula, DeMaio said.
"The reduction in state aid has put a huge financial burden on all the residents of my community, along with hundreds of communities across the state," she said.
But Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) said the gap between the formula calculation and Monroe's actual funding level exists because the funding formula is unaffordable. And while Monroe's funding for 2014 would be short of the formula amount, Beck said it represents the same amount the district got in 2013.
"Our taxpayers can't afford to fund the formula as it is," she said. "We've got to make some tweaks."