Small towns, farms and the environment will all suffer if the budget proposed by Gov. Corzine is adopted by the Legislature, advocates warned yesterday.
Dozens of lobbyists and residents made their pitches and pleas in the third public hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. The hearing at Gloucester County Institute of Technology was the group's first in South Jersey.
Meanwhile, in Trenton, David Rosen, the state's nonpartisan legislative budget and finance officer, told Assembly lawmakers that the slowing economy could result in the state collecting at least $289 million less in taxes in the next fiscal year than was previously estimated by Corzine.
In response, Assembly Budget Chairman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) suggested that the state look into the possibility of allowing municipalities to levy other types of taxes.
If revenues do fall short of predictions, Rosen said he anticipated either more budget cuts or taxes. Corzine has said he would not support more taxes.
Corzine's proposed budget of $33 billion already includes reducing spending by about $2.7 billion. And that will inflict very real pain on state residents, advocates said at the Senate budget hearing.
William Brooks, a farmer from Upper Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, grows potatoes, vegetables and grain on a farm that has been in his family since 1838. He said the proposal to eliminate the Department of Agriculture would be devastating to the state's farmers, particularly when costs for necessities such as fuel, chemicals and machine parts were rising.
Corzine has suggested shifting the agency's essential functions to another department, such as Environmental Protection.
"I believe the Department of Agriculture has had more than its fair share of budget cuts and remains an efficient department," Brooks said. "I'm willing to see it take its fair share of cuts, but to think of the drastic elimination proposed by the governor is not acceptable to me or my family."
Several representatives from small towns argued that the budget would unfairly penalize municipalities solely on the basis of their size. Corzine has proposed eliminating some state aid for towns with fewer than 5,000 residents and reducing aid to towns with 5,000 to 10,000 people.
The governor says that governments for small municipalities are among the root causes of New Jersey's property taxes, which are the highest in the nation. He has suggested that some towns merge.
But Marianne Smith, township manager for Hardyston Township in Sussex County, said that Hardyston previously conducted a state-sponsored consolidation study and found that simply sharing services would yield higher efficiency. Hardyston, population 8,200, is now sharing many services with Franklin Borough, Smith said.
She said there is no evidence that having 10,000 residents is a magic number and urged the state to take other measures to help municipalities rein in costs, including limiting arbitration awards that determine employee compensation and requiring more public employee contributions toward health benefits.
Several advocates for the environment argued that budget cuts to the state's Division of Parks and Forestry would impact the public's recreation and health. Advocates say state parks could be forced to reduce their hours or services as a result of massive funding cuts.
"Our state continues to lose over 40 acres of open space to development each day," said Amy Hansen, a policy analyst with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. "This results in the irreparable loss of farms and natural areas and our clean air and water."
Lawmakers agreed this will be a difficult budget season. Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), chairwoman of the committee, called this the darkest fiscal period she has seen since she joined the committee in 1994.
"Consumer confidence is low and economic anxiety as at an all-time high," Buono said. "There is no one right answer or solution, but we must stay within the governor's overall spending goals while making sure that we hold onto the services which the residents of New Jersey have come to rely upon."
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said that services must be cut to make ends meet.
"Some residents are going to be disappointed by this budget, but what everyone has to understand is if we want to improve our financial standing, we have to make some changes in the way New Jersey appropriates funds," he said.
But where the cuts should be made will undoubtedly spur further debate. Sen. Philip Haines (R., Burlington), for example, disagreed with some of the governor's proposed budget cuts and increases.
"We would seek to change that priority and make it more fair, more meaningful and more efficient based on an outcome-based test," Haines said. "Just to cut a town because it's under 10,000 is not fair."
According to the state constitution, the legislature must adopt a budget before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.