Who cares most about New Jersey’s 606,361 senior citizens — Gov. Chris Christie or the Legislative Democrats?
Both the governor and the Democrats spent most of Thursday trying to convince seniors that they have their unwavering support and that their rival would lock them in the attic if they had the chance.
But before both sides start taking bows or tossing verbal rocks at each other, here are two important points. While senior and disabled homeowners with incomes of up to $150,000 will receive property tax benefits of up to $540, for the second year in a row, neither Christie nor the Democrats are providing property tax rebates for senior or handicapped renters. It was never an issue as the budget took shape.
The Legislative Democrats proposed eliminating the state income tax on Social Security benefits but never pushed the idea and governor had no use for the proposal.
So as the Assembly Budget Committee on Thursday morning held a public hearing to learn what Democrats describe as the ramifications of Christie’s decision to cut $53.6 million in Democratic-proposed allocations for senior citizen programs from the 2011-12 state budget, the governor visited the Perth Amboy home of senior Sultana Kizides to talk with her and reporters about how he believes the new budget maintains fiscal discipline while prioritizing and funding core priorities to assist seniors.At the Assembly hearing, Democrats listened to complaints about Christie failing to approve $25 million for nursing homes, $4.65 million for specialty care nursing facilities, $13 million to protect Medicaid and Medicare patients from higher co-payments and to ensure they have access to drugs not included in Medicare, and $11 million to keep the aged, blind and disabled population out of managed care.
“Senior citizens deserve better,” Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), the committee’s vice chairman, said. “The testimony we heard today showed there is no valid public policy reason for the governor to cut nursing homes and special care nursing facilities, among other vital senior services. We remain committed to finding a way to resolve these cuts because caring for our vulnerable elderly should be a shared commitment.”
Assemblyman Joe Malone (R-Burlington) suggested to the Democrats that they appeal directly to Christie to provide the support. Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D-Salem) in turn, urged Malone and the other Republican committee members to make a joint appeal.
“This is an issue that touches all of our lives,” Riley said. “I am moved by the testimony I heard today and trust that all of my colleagues are equally sensitive to the pleas of our elderly and those with special needs. Their safety and well-being is not something that should be sacrificed in order to balance the budget.”
Christie, meanwhile, told Kizides that he is providing direct property tax relief for senior homeowners and increased funding by $90 million for the Senior Freeze property tax relief program. The governor said Senior Freeze checks are in the mail, and Homestead Benefits -- they were once referred to as rebates -- will be applied directly against homeowners’ property tax bills this year.
“Because of the priorities we funded in this budget, seniors and families will get the extra help they need to ease the strain on fixed incomes and family budgets,” Christie. “While we continue working to deliver lasting, long-term property tax relief, I am following through on my commitment to meet the needs of New Jersey seniors and families for immediate property tax relief in this year’s budget.
“The property tax crisis in New Jersey has squeezed our seniors and middle-class families, and we have attacked the underlying root of the problem with a 2 percent cap on property tax increases and fundamental reforms to drive down the cost of government,” the governor added. “We’ve made real progress, but I will not stop until an affordable, secure future is a certainty for our families and future generations.”
The legislators approved the allocations in the budget Christie signed.
Christie said the state Division of Taxation, has begun mailing Senior Freeze checks to senior and disabled homeowners. Checks for the Senior Freeze program, which protects senior citizen and disabled homeowners from increases in property taxes, will average more than $1,200 this year, going directly to recipients who earned $70,000 or less in 2009 and 2010.
The governor said senior and disabled homeowners with gross income up to $150,000 will receive Homestead Benefit credits averaging $540 this year, and non-senior homeowners with gross incomes up to $75,000 will receive credits averaging $404.
The state mailed out 116,000 Senior Freeze checks to applicants who filed by June 1 earlier this month. Those who filed after June 1 will receive checks throughout the coming months as the state processes applications. New applications are also being accepted because the state extended the deadline for filing to October 31. In addition, the governor and the Legislature have provided funding for more applicants this year.
Every individual who qualifies for the Senior Freeze program will receive a benefit this year.
The state Treasury Department is directly following up with applicants who filed incomplete applications in order to ensure every eligible New Jersey senior receives the benefit to which they are entitled. The Division of Taxation is mailing notices to 13,000 applicants who filed incomplete applications.
New Jerseyans with questions can call the Property Tax Reimbursement Hotline at 1-800-882-6597. Those who filed their applications by June 1 should wait until July 25 before contacting the Division of Taxation to inquire about the status of their reimbursement checks.
Assemblywoman Nancy F. Muñoz ( R-union), a member of the lower house's Health and Senior Services Committee, said following the Budget Committee hearing, “Today, we witnessed a hearing intended to distort Governor Christie’s record of supporting the elderly. One cannot overlook the fact that Governor Christie increased funding in the Senior and Disabled Citizens’ Freeze program by $30 million in order to fund the real cost of providing additional property tax relief. Checks averaging over $1,200 have already been mailed to over 100,000 recipients who filed valid applications by June 1. That part of the story needs to be told.
"Despite economically challenging times, the governor’s budget also preserves funding in the Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled (PAAD) and Senior Gold programs, serving over 150,000 low-income seniors," Munoz said. "It should also be noted that funding for Home and Community-Based Services for Seniors was increased by almost $48 million, which helps the elderly who want to transition from nursing homes back into their communities with home care support services."
Democratic aides said the budget contains increases for the Senior Freeze program and the state-run prescription program for low-income seniors because of the support of Legislative Democrats. They said Christie’s initial budget proposal called for a cutting the Senior Freeze program by $25.2 million.
Information about the program is also available on the Division of Taxation’s Web site at www.state.nj.us/treasury/taxation/.
Christie’s office issued this breakdown of what it says the governor has done for seniors:Homestead Benefits and Senior Freeze Program
- The 2011-12 budget doubles Homestead Benefits for New Jerseyans, providing direct property relief applied as a straight credit against homeowners’ property tax bills, and increased funding for the Senior Freeze property tax relief program by $90 million:
- Homestead Benefits will be applied directly as a credit that reduces homeowners’ property tax bills again this year, at double the level of last year;
- Senior and disabled homeowners with total income up to $150,000 will receive Homestead Benefit credits averaging $540.
- Senior Freeze checks to senior and disabled homeowners are already in the mail. Checks for the Senior Freeze program, which protects senior citizens and disabled residents from increases in property taxes, will average more than $1,200 this year, going directly to recipients who earned $70,000 or less in 2009 and 2010;
- Every individual who qualifies for the Senior Freeze program will receive a benefit this year.
- The budget fully funds the PAAD and Senior Gold pharmaceutical assistance programs without increases in copays or changes in eligibility.
- Approximately 160,000 low-income seniors receive financial assistance with life-saving medications.
- The state continues to achieve savings by coordinating with the federal government on its Medicare Part D drug assistance programs.
- New Jersey’s PAAD program remains one of the nation’s most generous senior pharmaceutical assistance programs.
- The budget increases funding for home and community-based services by $47.6 million.
- 81,174 New Jersey seniors are currently receiving SNAP (food stamp) assistance.
- The Department of Health and Senior Services and the Department of Human Services have partnered to match data from seniors eligible/enrolled in PAAD with NJ SNAP for outreach/enrollment.
- The two Departments are reaching out to more than 140,000 seniors in the PAAD program to let them know that they may qualify for food stamps.