Asbury Park Press

Budget Cuts Could Hit Low-Income New Jersey Residents

Asbury Park Press — Monday, March 15, 2010


CAMDEN — New Jersey's days as a place where the government is unusually generous to the needy may be numbered as a new governor pushes wide-ranging spending cuts to solve a deep budget crisis.

Gov. Chris Christie is set to unveil his first spending plan Tuesday after months of preaching shared sacrifice. From what he's done so far, it's clear that applies to lower-income people, too, in a state that's among the most generous in the nation when it comes to unemployment benefits and taxpayer-funded health care for the working poor.

Already, he has cut the state's mass-transit subsidy and stopped enrolling some lower-income adults in a subsidized health insurance program. He's also proposed reducing weekly unemployment checks and, even before he was sworn in, hinted that food banks could see their state aid cut and told hospitals their reimbursements for treating the indigent will be cut in June.

Those savings still carry a cost: One man doesn't know how a relative will pay for dialysis, and a nurse says a bus fare increase will mean an end to her occasional lunches out.

Advocates for the poor are complaining Christie isn't being fair.

What particularly rankles some critics is that Christie is planning to eliminate a higher income tax for families who make over $400,000. "We should not cut taxes for rich folks at the same time we're cutting funding for food banks,'' said Ev Liebman, project manager for the watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action.

Christie says he's in position to be aggressive with cuts because it's what he was elected to do and he has political leverage to do so, unlike many of his counterparts in other states who are seeking re- election or forced into lame-duck status through term limits.

He has been upfront about his intentions to cut state spending in nearly every category as he tries to close a projected $11 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

"There is not going to be an area of citizenry in our state or interests in our state who's not going to be asked to be part of shared sacrifice,'' he said last week.

Christie unseated Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine last year, promising to make government smaller and taxes lower.

During his administration, Corzine also faced budget crises that were also severe ... though not this bad. He raised taxes on liquor and cigarettes and increased income taxes on families who make over $400,000.

Corzine's budget-cutting largely spared the working class and poor in a state with the nation's h ighest average property taxes ... about $7,300; one of the three the highest median household incomes ... nearly $67,000; and paying $600 per week in maximum unemployment benefits ... the second-highest in the U.S.

New Jersey also trails only New York as the state with the highest eligibility income for adults to qualify for state subsidized health insurance. Uninsured adults who have children can buy in to the system depending on their income. Parents in a family of four could earn up to $77,000 and still qualify.

Earlier this month, Christie slashed eligibility. No more adults making more than 133 percent of the poverty level ... about $29,000 for a family of four ... can enroll.

And nearly 12,000 legal immigrants who are not citizens are being ousted entirely from the FamilyCare insurance program on March 31.

Don Flett, who lives in Toms River, says he has a 33-year-old relative in Jackson Township who came to the United States with her family from Ukraine legally four years ago. He would not identify her.

A home health aide, she lost her employer- provided health insurance through work last year, then was diagnosed with kidney disease. Flett says her doctors say she'll face a lifetime of dialysis if she doesn't have a kidney transplant. But it's not clear how she might pay for it after she loses her FamilyCare coverage at the end of the month. "If her creatinine level bumps up tomorrow,'' Flett asked, "Where's she going to go?''

Elsewhere, Christie's cuts could have less dramatic effects ... but noticeable ones.

Last week, Gwen Torres waited at an NJ Transit bus stop in Camden for a ride bus to her Woodlynne home after her overnight shift as a nurse in Philadelphia. Taped to the shelter was a notice of a proposal to raise fares 25 percent on May 1 ... a reaction to Christie's cut of the statewide transit system's subsidy.

Torres, 57, said the hike would cost her $25 to $35 per month. She said she and co-workers might start carpooling.

"It's going to be a lot cheaper to buy the gas,'' she said.

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