Although leaders of Jewish agencies expect to “share the pain” of Gov. Chris Christie’s austerity budget, few saw the kinds of direct cuts they feared would handicap the services they provide.
Christie urged a joint session of the New Jersey Legislature March 16 to pass a $28.3 billion austerity budget that would “stop our fiscal hemorrhaging.” To close a yawning budget gap, he spelled out broad proposals for spending cuts affecting every department of state government.
By contrast, Christie proposed increasing state funding to hospitals, children’s Medicare and New Jersey Family Care programs and prescription programs for seniors, and expanding food stamp and food bank eligibility to 185 percent of the poverty level.
There was nothing in what Christie was proposing “that says this is a point of major concern to priorities of the Jewish community,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations. “However, there is a request that there be a sharing of the pain and sacrifice in this budget. But until we know the particulars, it is difficult to know which pain and which sacrifice.”
Toporek also said he hoped the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education and the New Jersey-Israel Commission would be spared from cuts. Neither agency’s fate has yet been disclosed publicly by the governor’s administration.
Reuben Rotman, executive director of the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, praised the governor for “maintaining some safety net services which I think are critical. I know the hospitals were concerned about cuts, particularly for charity care, and maintaining Family Care is key for children at risk.”
Rotman also said he was pleased that the budget would preserve medication programs for seniors and expand food banks and food stamps.
“This is huge, because a growing number of our client base is actually needing food support programs,” he said.
David Lentz, chair of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, acknowledged that the state is “in a very tough position.”
He said he was pleased that “some safety net programs are being preserved. Medicare for children and food stamp programs take care of some of the neediest members of the community as a whole.”
Lentz said he was looking forward to specifics as to how cuts in department budgets would affect programs of special concern to the Jewish community, such as those promoting Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities and other initiatives helping seniors “age in place.”
“I guess time will tell,” Lentz said.
The majority of Christie’s address was focused on severe budget-trimming that included “as many as 1,300 layoffs of state workers next year, cutting public employee pensions, and reducing health insurance benefits for the state’s unionized school teachers.”
He proposed privatizing the state-run NJN TV network, and called for one constitutional amendment to limit property tax increases to two-and-a-half percent each year, and another to cap the growth of state spending at two-and-a-half percent per year.
Christie suggested reducing state aid to municipalities by $445 million, a plan he said was designed “to minimize the effect on any one municipality.”
As he concluded his speech, the governor said New Jersey could “turn our crisis into an opportunity…. The choices I am asking you to make now will not be easy,” he said, “but they are the first step on the path to a brighter future.”