PISCATAWAY, NJ - Community leaders and residents of District 17 gathered at Westergard Library in Piscataway on Tuesday night to discuss their objectives in support of the working families’ alliance platform, followed by a question and answer session.

Incumbent Senator Bob Smith (D) and his opponent Daryl Kipnis (R) joined the meeting with Smith sitting at the head table with the panel and Kipnis in the audience.

Moderator Staci Berger advised both men that the meeting was a not-for-profit 503(c) meeting, and campaigning would not be allowed. 

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Analilia Mejia, Executive Director of NJ Working Families Alliance, Jon Whiten, Vice President of New Jersey Policy Perspective, Junior Romero, Regional Organizer of Food and Water Watch, Christine Sadovy, Political Director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund in New Jersey were the members of the panel. 

Romero followed the introduction stating his opposition to possible fracking and natural gas exploration. He also pointed out that permafrost is melting in some parts of the world causing gas to escape into the atmosphere.

"I believe climate change is the cause of permafrost melting and aims to advocate to have 100% renewable energy sources by 2035," said Romero. 

Whiten focused on taxes and the state budget and the inequality of the existing system. He expressed his concern about how New Jersey's fiscal crisis mostly impacts the poor, and how state and local taxes are born unfairly by the poor. 

"Is there enough money for the needs," Whiten asked. "Everything is underfunded. Provide more equity for the poor and obtain more revenue. Change the tax code to have the wealthy pay more. Eliminating the estate tax was a mistake and should be reinstated. Closing business loopholes ought to be a priority. Companies should not be allowed to ship profits out of state in order to lower their taxes. Governor Christie reduced sales tax by a small amount which caused the state to lose revenue and did not help the poor."

Sadovy talked about family planning and pointed out that Governor Christie had reduced funds to Planned Parenthood's cancer and STD screening and family planning. She suggested that there is a good return on investment in Planned Parenthood because it reduces women's illnesses and in many cases, prevents them, decreasing overall healthcare cost.

“Breast cancer is increasing and minorities especially are impacted," Sadovy said. "Six health centers have been closed in New Jersey, making it difficult for the poor to get to the remaining places. Planned Parenthood is looking forward to restoring funding under a new administration. 33,000 people have lost services in the past year." 

Mejia pointed out that New Jersey Working Families Alliance is a progressive organization pushing legislators to do more for the poor, educating and mobilizing voters to get out and vote. Putting forward an agenda to the state in terms of taxes and healthcare, she hopes to get a democratic governor to follow Christie.  

Mejia mostly works with Democrats but is willing to support Republicans who support their agenda. Mejia wants the current minimum wage of $8.44 to be raised to $15 within five years. Smith said he would like to do it quicker. It was pointed out that this wage cannot be lived on.

Young workers, as well as more mature workers, need a higher wage since they often support others in their family, so there should be no carve-out for these younger workers," Mejia said. 

Some legislators want to carve out agriculture from the minimum wage, which she is against. Fighting 'wage theft', especially in such occupations as wait staff who make $2.13 an hour and expect to make up their income with tips was also her concern. 

Smith said he needs to justify his incumbency, pointing out he has always supported the progressive issues being discussed with women's' rights at the top of his agenda. He has proposed a $15 minimum wage in the past but was vetoed. He believes there should be a dedication of funds obtained from damages to go to cleaning up the environment, not to other causes such as salary increases. 

The biggest thing he wants for his tombstone he said, "is the increase of funding for open space, which benefits the environment for everybody." And he wants to reduce food waste, claiming "50% of food is disposed of unnecessarily, much of which goes to landfills.” 

Smith supports legislation to allow supermarkets to donate food beyond its expiration date which is still safe to consume. Electric vehicles are also on his agenda and should be incentivized in the next legislature if Democrats are elected, especially governor. 

Other points addressed by the audience included: gas tax, making New Jersey a sanctuary state, automatic voting rights for people on parole or probation, tax funding allocation and business incentives for companies such as Amazon.

"I heard all of the other speakers before at other venues but this is the first time I heard Christine," said Linda Powell, a community activist and FTTF steering committee member. "I was amazed at how much health care they provided and how many people were impacted by the cuts to her funding. I am going to go home and make a donation to Planned Parenthood Action Fund. I was glad to see people at the meeting supporting refunding of planned parenthood." 

Powell said she also “thought Sen. Bob Smith had some concrete ideas on the environment and the use of renewable energy.

“He also had some good ideas on preventing food waste and supplying food to people with food insecurity, including school children. Smith also discussed improving transportation by converting to electric vehicles and increasing the availability of charging stations." 

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