Lawmakers started hearing from advocates across southern New Jersey Wednesday, about how Gov. Chris Christie's proposed budget cuts will affect their lives and their families.

Members of the state's Assembly budget panel started their first

public hearing in Collingswood, Camden County, praising the 100 or

more speakers who arrived to speak.

Because the first hearing concentrates on cuts to health, family

services and other programs helping seniors, children and families,

advocates for Atlantic City's Boys and Girls Club and the Vineland

Developmental Center plan to speak.

Last week, Christie introduced a draft budget totaling $29.3 billion - but which attempts to close a $10.7 billion anticipated deficit. The

Vineland center, serving the severely disabled of Cumberland County, must close one campus under the budget plan, which also cuts off a property-tax freeze to incoming seniors. One committee member, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, said this year's proposed budget shrinkage followed two previous years of budget cuts, an "unprecedented" situation.

Early speakers this morning mixed praise for Christie for maintaining

hospital care funds for the poor with worries that seniors might react to prescription costs by taking medication less often than needed.

Among representatives from state organizations, Debra Wentz, CEO of New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies, Inc., said proposed cuts to mental health services come as suicide calls to agencies have doubled this year.

Wentz said making state savings among those agencies, especially

during a bad economy, was "unconscionable."

The hearing is taking place at Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood.

Meanwhile, the Senate budget panel continues its hearings through the next two weeks, with a gathering on Thursday also in Camden County.