Op-Ed: Trump’s Budget Puts New Jersey At Risk

This op-ed appeared in the Sunday, April 16, 2017 edition of The Star-Ledger.

NJ grants 2017_instaWhile his campaign promised to “make America great again,” President Trump’s first outline of a spending plan for the nation reflects a slash-and-burn agenda that will increase hardship for working families, cripple key investments in our shared future and widen the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us.

The president’s recently released “skinny budget” is somewhat light on details, but we know that it cuts crucial domestic and international spending by $54 billion in the 2018 budget, as well as by $18 billion this federal budget year – which is already halfway over.

These cuts are to what’s known as “non-defense discretionary” programs – programs that aren’t entitlements like Social Security or Medicare and aren’t, as the name implies, national defense programs. This spending covers essential public goods, from education to environmental protection to infrastructure and transportation to our (already tattered) social safety net. And where will the money go from these cuts? To military spending and defense contractors, and to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And, who will be punished by these cuts? New Jersey’s low-income residents who are already struggling to get by in our high-cost state.

Make no mistake: This massive redistribution of federal spending poses a grave threat to hundreds of thousands of New Jersey’s working families and to our state’s budget.

Take the more than $17 billion in grants that the federal government provides each year to New Jersey. This funding – which supports health care, transportation, housing, education, housing, child care, job training and clean air and water, among other priorities – comprises 29 percent of total New Jersey spending, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And nearly all of it is at risk of being severely cut, if not disappearing altogether.

As it stands now, New Jersey’s financial situation is already precarious. Witness the 11 credit downgrades under this governor’s tenure and the state’s ongoing annual struggles to meet its promised obligations, deliver essential services, maintain a robust safety net and invest in the building blocks of our economy – or even balance the budget.

In other words, it’s clear New Jersey has no capacity to replace any lost federal funding – never mind $17.4 billion. That means that the proposal from President Trump would end up forcing New Jersey to cut or eliminate services and programs that help a wide variety of families across the state – particularly low-income and middle-class New Jerseyans.

Take for example just four of the vital block grant programs – for help with heating bills, housing and anti-poverty services – that President Trump hopes to completely eliminate. These cuts – which are just the tip of the iceberg of damage, as they represent less than a quarter of the total proposed cuts to domestic and international spending – would harm hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans and cost the state nearly $250 million a year in federal dollars.

First, President Trump wants to kill a program that helps approximately 800,000 low-income New Jerseyans — including many poor seniors — pay heating bills. Under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), New Jersey received $116.3 million in the 2016 federal budget to help these families pay their bills.

The second crucial federal program on the president’s chopping block is the Community Development Block Grant, which supports housing, economic development and social service projects, mainly for low- and moderate-income New Jerseyans. In the 2016 federal budget, New Jersey received $81.3 million from the federal government under this grant.

Then there’s a program that helps develop and preserve affordable rental housing and repair homes of low-income homeowners (HOME Investment Partnerships), and one that provides funding for local governments and nonprofits to provide important anti-poverty services (Community Services Block Grant). These programs brought $24.5 million and $19.2 million in federal funding to New Jersey, respectively, in the 2016 federal budget year. And they too are both fully eliminated in the president’s proposal.

And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the other deep Trump budget cuts that stand to cause even more harm to New Jersey – including cuts to transportation and education spending (both of which would see a 13 percent reduction), the National Institutes of Health (which would see an 18 percent cut) or environmental protection (which is targeted for a whopping 31 percent reduction).

As a high-cost state that is still struggling to crawl out of the Great Recession, New Jersey would be particularly damaged by President Trump’s slash-and-burn approach to the federal budget. The timing couldn’t be worse: At a critical moment when the state is finally starting to see the first hints of an improving economy, these massive cuts would set New Jersey’s recovery back “bigly” and decimate the ability of our state’s struggling residents to begin to climb back into the middle class.

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