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Corzine approves measure for relief

The bill, hurried through the Legislature, provides people help with food, heat and home foreclosures.

HAMILTON, N.J. - New Jerseyans facing home foreclosure, those who can't afford their heating bills, and the increasing number turning to food pantries for meals all got a boost from legislation enacted yesterday.

Gov. Corzine signed a bill authorizing $22.5 million for legal assistance, energy and food aid. The signing took place at a Mercer County senior citizen center in front of about 75 seniors.

"In New Jersey, we've long maintained that progressive ideal that the disadvantaged, the vulnerable, and just those caught in a down cycle in the economy deserve assistance," said Corzine.

The bill was fast-tracked through the Legislature after Corzine proposed a broad-ranging economic assistance and recovery plan for the state in October.

The bill allocates $9.5 million in legal aid for people facing foreclosure, bankruptcy and debt collection. October saw more foreclosure filings in New Jersey than any single month on record, with more than 5,000 filings recorded.

Another $10 million in energy assistance is for people who need temporary help paying their utility bills, but earn too much to qualify for low-income heating assistance. The aid will be distributed through the nonprofit NJ SHARES, which has been flooded with applications for heating-bill help.

NJ SHARES has turned away thousands of applications over the last several months because of lack of funds, said Jim Dieterle, a founding board member.

The bill also authorizes $3 million to food pantries, which Corzine said have experienced a 30 to 40 percent increase in demand amid shrinking donations.

Some lawmakers raised concerns that the money is from funds reserved for paying down the state debt, but Corzine said residents in dire circumstances must be helped first.

"We need to address our debt issue in the state. I'm as interested and focused on that as anyone," said Corzine. "But we have a crisis, we have an emergency."

One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex), said the bill was a sound investment.

"It's a bill that will invest in the best quality product we have in the state of New Jersey. That is our people - our children, our families and our seniors," she said.

Before signing the bill, Corzine held an hour-long telephone forum in which he explained the legislation to thousands of people who called in.

Corzine's economic-stimulus package includes assistance for the most vulnerable people, and plans to jump-start the economy. A key element is moving forward on more than $2 billion in construction projects, which he says will create thousands of jobs.