‘Shameful’ NJ budget process rushes toward approval Thursday
TRENTON – Democrats are expected to approve the $46.4 billion state budget Thursday, ending a process punctuated by the typical limited transparency over how state funds are allocated.
The 280-page budget bill wasn’t publicly available until late Tuesday afternoon and was taken up about 10 minutes later in a Senate committee. About 16 minutes passed between the time it hit Assembly members’ email inboxes and it was taken up in the Assembly Budget Committee, where chairwoman Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, asked if Republicans wanted to take a break to read it.
“Not jokingly, I would request a recess until Monday, if that was going to be offered,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex. “If it’s going to be just a half an hour, an hour, let’s move forward. We would need some time. It literally just hit my email now.”
“Well, I am not privy to give you until Monday," Pintor Marin said. "I think that the speaker plans to have a voting session on Thursday. So, if you need an hour or whatever much that you need for today, but we would need to get it done for today.”
“There’s no reasonable way we can do that. So, let’s proceed and we’ll vote our conscience on it,” Wirths said.
Thursday's Assembly session, incidentally, has 151 bills listed for votes. There’s a chance it will be the final meeting until November, though sessions are currently scheduled for the first few days of next week.
The process with the budget bill was only slightly better than what happened with a $115 million supplemental appropriation for the current budget that the Senate budget committee took up before its language was available to lawmakers, let alone the public.
“All good stuff,” Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said of the bill's appropriations.
“It might be all good stuff, but no one voting on it knows what that good stuff is,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.
O’Scanlon said Wednesday that Democrats “made an absolute mockery” of government transparency.
“This entire budget process has been the most shameful, willful disregard for government transparency that Trenton has ever seen,” he said. “Unfortunately, Gov. Murphy and the Democrats currently in charge of the State House are unlikely to do anything to fix this broken process. Hell, they created it.”
The criticism spans the political spectrum. Progressive groups plan a Thursday news conference outside the Statehouse Annex to “condemn an anti-democratic and opaque budget process.”
“What happened today at the Statehouse is truly shameful,” said New Jersey Policy Perspective president Brandon McKoy. “Lawmakers voted on some of the most consequential bills of the year — totaling tens of billions of dollars in both spending and corporate tax breaks — without any of the bill language available to the public.”
“Their behavior, in an election year no less, affirms how little they care about good governance and basic democratic principles,” he said. “At the same time, this should not come as a surprise given the uncompetitive nature of New Jersey’s elections.”
Murphy, asked about the speed of the budget votes at his coronavirus briefing, said New Jersey generally has a good budget process that includes the unveiling of the governor’s plan in February, followed by a few dozen legislative hearings and frequent sharing of tax collection data.
“Would I be open-minded to sort of a window between posting and voting?” Murphy said. “Yeah, that’s something that I would welcome the opportunity to talk to the legislative leadership about. In fact, we have talked about it. I think that would be a potentially good step.”
Back in 2007, then-Senate President Richard Codey outlined new rules for the budget adoption that required all proposed changes to a governor’s proposed budget, including the author of each change, to be published at least 14 days before the Senate considered a budget bill. Those budget resolutions are still submitted each year but aren’t made public until long after the spending plan is approved.
Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican nominee for governor, called the budget consideration a “shameful backroom deal” that wouldn’t be allowed to repeat if he’s elected.
“That our state's $45 billion, 281-page budget was voted on 11 minutes after it became publicly available for review is offensive, and exemplifies everything that is wrong with Phil Murphy's Trenton,” Ciattarelli said. “When I am governor, this ends.”
“Under a Ciattarelli administration, I will veto any bill sent to my desk that has not been made available to the public and noticed for consideration at least one week before a committee vote,” he said. “No more backroom deals that disrespect the taxpayers, stifle free press, and embarrass our state. It is far past time to restore transparency and decency to New Jersey’s government.”
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.