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PERTH AMBOY, N.J.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited a retired woman at her home on Thursday to highlight his doubling of a property tax relief program for senior citizens over last year, while Democrats in Trenton were attempting to show the negative impact the governor's budget is having on nursing home patients and Medicaid recipients.
The tale of two budgets played out simultaneously, with Christie sitting at the kitchen table of Sultana Kizides, who recently cashed a property tax relief check totaling nearly $3,000. She also can expect a credit of $412.50 to appear on this year's tax bill.
"Our main goal for seniors is that more and more ... are in the home they want to be in, in the community they want to be in," Christie said inside the house.
Democrats acknowledged that an additional appropriation was made for senior tax relief this year, but say they are responsible. Christie's original budget proposed cutting $25 million from the Senior Freeze program, which keeps property taxes level for senior citizens on fixed incomes, helping them stay in their homes.
"Whether Tana can afford to stay in her home is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It's an issue for New Jersey seniors who have dedicated their whole lives to contributing to this state in a significant way," Christie said. "We want to keep them here."
Democrats indeed see funding for programs for the poor and middle-class as a partisan issue. They tried unsuccessfully to override some of Christie's line-item budget cuts and have been holding post-budget hearings to try and show how detrimental his cuts will be on the state's most vulnerable residents.
Christie slashed $1.3 billion from the budget Democrats sent him before signing a $29.7 billion budget June 30.
About 60 people packed an Assembly hearing room Thursday as the budget committee listened to nursing home residents, disabled patients and industry lobbyists explain how Christie's budget cuts would affect services. But substitutes filled in for five of the 12 committee members, who were absent for the second in a series of hearings Democrats are holding to evaluate the cuts.
Nursing aides maneuvered wheelchair-bound residents of Cheshire Home into position opposite the committee. The long-term care home for disabled residents receives funds from the same budget as nursing homes.
"These cuts jeopardize everything we are still working toward establishing or already have built -- our educations, our careers, our lives," said Denise Jenne, who has lived in the home for 30 years. "I ask for your help as I once again face the specter of a future doing little more than sitting in front of the television."
A Cheshire Home employee held a copy of Jenne's prepared testimony in front of her while she spoke. Her mobility is so limited that she controls her wheelchair with her mouth.
The $30 million cut in state aid will hit nursing homes twice, advocates said, because New Jersey will lose out on an additional $30 million in federal matching funds.
"Safe staffing is the backbone of quality care," said Milly Silva of Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents nursing home caregivers. "With fewer staff, nursing home residents will be forced to wait longer to receive their food, meds and daily care."
Republicans have dismissed the hearings as election-year posturing designed to paint Christie and the GOP as unsympathetic to needy populations. They argue Christie has protected seniors as best as possible within the constraints of the state's fiscal crisis, and point to the checks seniors will continue to get under the Senior Freeze program.
Democrats say cuts to vital services shouldn't be implemented without a full airing of the impact they will have on New Jersey residents.
"Senior citizens deserve better," said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, the No. 2 Democrat on the budget committee. "We remain committed to finding a way to resolve these cuts because caring for our vulnerable elderly should be a shared commitment."
Josh Lederman reported from Trenton.