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Assembly Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald’s opening statement, as prepared for delivery, on Tuesday as the Assembly Budget Committee opened its hearings on Gov. Chris Christie’s budget plan:

“Good afternoon, and welcome everyone to what is the start of a very important legislative process that sits at the heart of our democracy.

“American democracy is based on the strong checks and balances each branch of government employs upon the others.

“The legislative branch is responsible for creating laws and overseeing the executive branch, and these budget hearings are an important example of that legislative role.

“The governor proposes a budget plan.

“The Legislature reviews it and suggests changes to make it better. That process starts with this committee, which has already spent, I would estimate, more than 20 hours listening to the thoughts and opinions of the public at three public hearings held in each region of our great state.

“They were great conversations. We’ve heard the concerns about education services for the blind. We heard the concerns about education not being a priority. We heard the concerns about property taxes that continue to soar. We had worries about services for the disabled being curtailed. We heard about a continued lack of commitment from the executive branch to health care for women, children and senior citizens. We heard worries about jobs with our unemployment rate still hovering above 9 percent after the governor killed numerous job creation initiatives just a few weeks ago.

“We now take those concerns and make them part of the upcoming discussions with Cabinet members about what’s the best spending plan for New Jersey. “We have several new members of the Assembly Budget Committee this year, and my advice to them is simple – you have a unique opportunity in the weeks ahead to shape our state’s future. Don’t waste it. Think for yourself.

“These are still among the toughest economic times this nation has faced since The Great Depression. New Jerseyans are not interested in theatrics. They want solutions and elected officials who show independence and do the right thing to create jobs, jumpstart our economy, tackle property taxes and preserve health care.

“With that in mind, I look forward to a thorough debate in the weeks ahead that will guide us toward a budget that meets the values held dear by hard-working New Jerseyans struggling to make ends meet. We need a budget that makes the needs of working class New Jerseyans a focal point. We need a budget that creates jobs and economic development. We need a budget that takes on property taxes. And we need a budget that protects health care.

“Unfortunately, the budget signed last year by the governor did not share those priorities, and this year’s plan seems no different. Last year’s budget led to the highest property tax increase in four years. It inexplicably eliminated vital health care for women and their children. It did little to nothing to create jobs.

“The average property tax bill is now a whopping $7,576 per household, up more than 4 percent from last year. With the Governor slashing school aid by $1 billion and municipal aid by $446 million last year, property tax bills grew by their highest margin since 2007. And this painful increase doesn’t even include tax increases in the form of ‘student activity fees’ for children just to participate in after-school clubs or athletics.

“In this difficult economy, New Jersey families cannot afford higher property taxes. The governor has spoken at length on this point, and I agree. But the proof is in the pudding.

“In addition to raising income taxes on the working poor, supporting toll and fare increases for commuters, hiking taxes on health care and vetoing bills to create jobs and put New Jerseyans back to work, the governor delivered the highest property taxes our state has ever seen. We cannot see a repeat.

“Granted, everyone knows these are tough economic times, and our state cannot afford to fund every single need. But budgets are about priorities, and the governor has made his clear: tax cuts for millionaires while raising taxes on middle class families, seniors and our most vulnerable. “That’s not the priority of New Jersey families.

“I sincerely hope that this year will be different, and that the governor will prove willing to work to ensure the needs of New Jersey’s working class families are the priority. Because the ‘new normal’ cannot mean continued unemployment, higher property taxes and attacks on health care for women, children and senior citizens.

Every year is different, and I hope this year we will see a commitment to put New Jersey’s middle-class, senior and disabled citizens, women, children and those less fortunate at the forefront of this important process. “Our residents deserve no less.”