Lawmakers set to decide in four days how to spend $33 billion
With less than two weeks to go before lawmakers must meet a constitutional deadline for a signed and balanced state budget, New Jersey's budget process is about to kick into high gear.
Democrats are scheduled to introduce on Monday their alternative budget to the one presented by Gov. Chris Christie in February. They are hoping to have it passed and sent to Christie on June 25. If that happens, it means lawmakers will spend just four days deciding how to spend $33 billion in taxpayers' money.
Two political experts weighed in on the perils and pitfalls of waiting until the 11th hour, and fast-tracking the process.
"Anybody who has a stake in the state budget is probably on the edge of their seat. Anybody who is funded by the state directly or indirectly doesn't know whether or not he or she is going to get the money next year," said Peter Woolley, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Towns, school districts, public employees, hospitals and others are probably anxious and uncertain, according to Woolley.
"For lawmakers, a budget is a big, big, complicated thing with lots and lots of moving parts and subtleties so everybody's got their pet projects that are wrapped into a $33 billion budget and many people would prefer that they not be discussed vigorously in public," Woolley explained.
A budget should be a roadmap for the future and there should be lengthy deliberations not rushed committee hearings and votes, according to Seton Hall University Political Science Professor Matthew Hale.
"The members aren't going to have a huge amount of time to read what all the changes are and ultimately it's going to be a decision between (Sen. President Steve) Sweeney, (Assembly Speaker Vinnie) Prieto and Gov. Chris Christie and that's not so democratic," hale explained.
Budgets ought to give certainty to everyone involved and the longer the current uncertainty plays out the worse it will be for schools and towns, but it's also potentially bad for the state's credit rating, according to Hale.
The state budget is really a plan for how to spend the money taxpayers send to Trenton, but you should not expect to be given the opportunity to voice your opinion.
"Taxpayers won't get a say," Woolley said. "This is another instance where the public are simply bystanders in a political process."
The constitutional deadline for a signed and balanced state budget is midnight June 30.