VINELAND - Leaders of some southern New Jersey Hispanic organizations said Thursday that Gov. Chris Christie's proposed state budget cuts will force them to significantly reduce services for what they called the most vulnerable of the region's residents.
The leaders of organizations in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties said some of the services they will have to slash include health screenings, programs aimed at reducing truancy, transportation and even the number of interpreters used to help Hispanics who speak little or no English navigate through state government bureaucracy.
Those leaders joined Thursday with the Better Choices for New Jersey Campaign, a statewide organization suggesting alternatives to Christie's proposed cuts, at a news conference across from City Hall.
They said they will push for what they believe is one solution to the funding problem: Getting the Legislature to override Christie's veto of the millionaire's tax, a tariff that would raise hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
"At a time when need is at an all-time high due to the high unemployment rate, the state is proposing to cut the very programs and services that help people around the state weather tough times and maintain their quality of life and good health," said Arlene Munoz, director of the Spanish Community Center - Shore Area Health Education Center, which covers Atlantic and Cumberland counties. "We need our legislators to stand up for our organizations and our clients by fighting these cuts and restoring the millionaires' tax."
The next group of legislators to be targeted is those in southern New Jersey, said Bill Holland, Better Choices for New Jersey coordinator.
"It's critically important for south Jersey legislators to stand up," he said.
Christie did not renew the millionaire's tax, imposed on the state's wealthiest residents, when it expired last year. The governor let the tax lapse to reduce what he calls New Jersey's high tax burden. Christie recently vetoed a bill, supported by Democrats, to reinstate the tax. There's still no indication of when Democrats, who contend the tax would raise about $500 million, will try to override the veto. Veto action must occur first in the Assembly, and then in the state Senate.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said he would vote to override Christie's veto.
"I do not support new, broad-based taxes," he said. "I do believe the millionaire's tax is an exception. I believe we should have continued with what was in place last year."
According to officials with the Hispanic organizations, Christie's budget cuts will:
- Reduce funding for the Spanish Community Center, which is based in Atlantic City, Landisville and Vineland, by about $355,000. That's represents about one-third of the center's budget. The center provides services that include after-school latchkey programs, training for parents of children with special needs, emergency food distribution and family crisis care counseling.
- Eliminate $295,000 for all three of southern New Jersey's area health education centers. One center serves Bridgeton, and another is based in Landisville and Atlantic City. The centers use medical students, residents and other health professionals to provide free screenings and outpatient care.
- Cut more than half the funding to the Puerto Rican Action Committee of Vineland, which offers bilingual casework, after-school and youth programs, social service transportation and truancy prevention. No money figures were available Thursday.
Some local residents who use the organizations' services said the lack of funding would be devastating.
"After my husband was deployed to Iraq in 2008, after-school care provided by the Spanish Community Center allowed me to work the hours I needed to support us," said 38-year-old Caroline Cortes, who lives on West Avenue in Vineland.
Cortes said she also lost her job at a doctor's office in March 2009, and an area health education center helped the family fill in a gap in its health coverage.
"That Gov. Christie might eliminate this program while giving a tax break to the wealthy shows he's not standing up for military families," Cortes said.
Miquel Rivera, 54, suffers from diabetes and has not found work since being laid off from his factory job in 2008. He does not own a car, and said getting around southern New Jersey can be challenging.
"Up until now, they have been giving me rides for my medical check-ins and visits to the Social Security office," said Rivera, speaking through an interpreter. "If they didn't, I'd have to pay $50 to $100 for a taxi or a neighbor to take me to my appointments.
"How can I do that when I only collect $362 every two weeks on unemployment? How am I supposed to pay for basic needs like rent or food?
"These organizations do a lot for this community with very little, and they should no be cut while millionaires get giant tax breaks," he said.
Casa PRAC Executive Director Jose Melendez said reducing services would only make economic circumstances worse for the region's Hispanics.
"These cutbacks will force us to lay off staff, contributing to the state's dismal jobless rate and burdening New Jersey with more unemployment payments," he said.
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