NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan today spoke at a press conference about the proposed state budget. Joining representatives from NJ Working Families, NJ Policy Perspective, NJ Sierra Club, NJ Citizen Action, SEIU, and a student from Rutgers University, Blistan urged legislators and the governor to make better decisions about scarce budget dollars. “Budgets are spending plans that can provide and take away opportunities,” Blistan said. “But we are concerned that this budget squanders too many opportunities for our children and their future.” Blistan called for preschool expansion, and additional resources for higher education and the pension fund. In addition, Blistan called for more financial assistance for districts struggling to implement the new teacher evaluation system and the PARCC testing regimen – both expensive, technology-laden initiatives.
The press conference was organized by the Better Choices for New Jersey Campaign, a statewide coalition of over 50 organizations that fights for smart investments that strengthen our communities and our economy.
Here is the full text of Blistan’s speech:
Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to join our colleagues in the Better Choices Coalition to voice our common concerns about the proposed state budget.
Budgets are spending plans that can provide and take away opportunities. We are concerned that this budget squanders too many opportunities for our children and their future.
For example, this budget leaves children yards behind the starting line because it fails to make good on the state’s commitment to expand access to high quality preschool programs.
Under the school funding formula, preschool should be available to at least 30,000 more students across the state.
This is short-sighted especially when one considers that some economists estimate that for every $1 spent on early childhood education, the community receives an economic benefit of up to $7 in the form of reduced special education spending and criminal justice costs, increased income tax revenue from higher-skilled workers, and similar societal improvements.
This budget does not provide the resources to properly implement new education reform initiatives recently approved by lawmakers.
School districts are struggling to fund the costs associated with implementing the new evaluation system and PARCC testing regimen.
By only providing token support, this budget will put districts in the untenable position of finding additional resources in their own budgets—which may require cutting much-needed programs for students – in order to meet the demands of these expensive, technology-based systems.
This budget also makes college less affordable for many of our neediest students. It does that by cutting aid for Part-Time Tuition Aid Grants and the STARS program.
In the 2015 budget, $3.5 million is being cut from these important programs which enable needy and motivated New Jersey students to attend county colleges.
While the 2015 budget contains a slight increase of 0.8% for county colleges, this comes after years of flat or reduced funding.
Rising operational costs in the colleges will require tuition increases that cannot be met by many students.
And finally, this budget threatens to continue a pattern of irresponsibility about paying for commitments that the state has made to its workforce.
We were surprised to see that in this budget the state had made changes to its actuarial assumptions that led to a decrease in the state’s projected contribution to the state retirement systems in the upcoming year from $2.4 billion to $2.25 billion.
We also noted the retroactive decrease from $1.68 billion to $1.58 billion in the current year’s contribution, and publicly questioned why these changes were made.
It is not unusual to see small variations in assumptions from year to year or from one actuary to another.
However, upon close inspection, it appears that the state has begun to adopt assumptions which tend to lower its contribution while ignoring advice to adopt other assumptions that would increase the required contribution.
That is a very dangerous first step back toward the state’s irresponsible funding practices that created our pension problem in the first place.
We believe the state’s behavior highlights the need for an independent actuary, employed by and answerable to the pension fund rather than the state, to determine each year’s required state contribution.
Putting that responsibility in the hands of an independent actuary will reduce the likelihood of inappropriate political interference in the calculation of the state’s required contribution, and will help ensure that the pension funding law serves its purpose of returning the state to sound, sustainable funding practices.
Therefore, NJEA is calling on the Legislature to pass, and the governor to sign, legislation that ensures an independent, non-political process for determining the state’s required pension payment beginning in FY 2016.
We also call on the governor and legislature to this year make the full payment for which they budgeted in the FY 2014 budget.
It is time for the state to make good on its commitment to following the law and funding the pension to ensure the long-term stability of the system. The part of the bill that we put off today will certainly come due tomorrow.
Once again, we urge you to invest in the state’s future by investing in New Jersey’s students and keeping your promises to the employees who make this state work.