- Associated Press - Monday, March 9, 2015

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey residents will have their first opportunity to publicly weigh in on Gov. Chris Christie’s $33.8 billion 2016 budget Tuesday.

Senate and Assembly committees are going on the road this week with what legislators call listening sessions, first in Paramus then in Collingswood.

The purpose of the hearings is for New Jersey residents - usually about 80 to 150 show up - to share their thoughts on how Christie is proposing to spend their tax dollars.

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WHAT HAPPENS AT THE HEARINGS?



Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer described the format as “free-wheeling” and said the agenda is open. In other words, residents should come prepared with questions, concerns and suggestions.

Schaer said the message to voters is that hearing their opinions is “vitally important” and that usually those views greatly affect the approach lawmakers take.

“The members on both sides of the aisle take it seriously,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo. “We don’t do a lot of talking. We do a lot of listening.”

Assembly Republican budget committee member Declan O’Scanlon said these meetings are “some of the most valuable hearings we do.”

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WHAT ARE THE BIG ISSUES IN THIS BUDGET?

Christie put overhauling the public pension system at the center of his budget address, calling for a $1.3 billion payment into the funds and unveiling what he called a roadmap to changing the system.

That idea included what he called an “accord” with the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The agreement called for freezing the current system, turning over control of it to unions, and holding a vote on a constitutional amendment to fund the pensions.

Unions reacted by announcing plans to sue the administration on the grounds Christie is not adequately paying into the fund according to the terms of a 2011 law.

O’Scanlon said he expects unions to appear at the hearing.

“Essential is our pursuing a solution to our pension obligations. I hope that our public workers - whose interest we must protect as well, by the way - will take our situation seriously,” he said. “The alternative would be devastating for everybody in New Jersey.”

Sarlo predicted other issues also would come up, including funding for mental health programs, special education and education spending. The state’s recent $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil over contamination in northern New Jersey as well as the state’s depleted transportation trust fund also may be discussed, Schaer said.

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WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

After the public hearings, lawmakers will review the governor’s budget, which has yet to officially be submitted to them. The Legislature will then hold hearings with the various department heads who will present their requests. Lawmakers are aiming to have their own budget done before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

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IF YOU GO

-The Senate budget hearing is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday at Bergen Community College’s Technology Education Center, 400 Paramus Road, in Paramus.

-The Assembly hearing will be at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Scottish Rite Auditorium, 315 White Horse Pike, in Collingswood.

-The Assembly is holding its next hearing on March 18 in Paterson and a third on March 24 in Trenton. The Senate holds additional hearings on March 31 and April 2 in Trenton.

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