They want to clip Murphy’s budget powers … but they’ll have to wait
Monday’s deadline for putting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot came and went without Assembly action on a plan to change how revenues for the state’s annual budget are certified – a move that would cut back the powers of New Jersey’s governor.
The Senate voted 28-3 in late July to put the question before voters, but the Assembly hasn’t held a voting session since July 1 and doesn’t plan to until Sept. 27. Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said he’d like to revamp revenue forecasting through a change in state law, rather than the constitution.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, pushed to get the public question on this year’s ballot.
“We need to fix what we’re doing. It doesn’t work. We just had a bad budget with numbers we don’t know are real or not real,” Sweeney said at a July 23 committee hearing.
Sweeney and Gov. Phil Murphy are often at odds, despite both being Democrats. Sweeney said the proposal isn’t about Murphy but did complain about the disagreements between the executive and legislative budget analysts about the tax proposal lawmakers floated in late June.
“If I’m the governor, I would want this because you can’t argue the numbers if you have a consensus between the legislative body, an independent individual and the governor,” Sweeney said. “Then you have consensus built around real projections.”
Murphy said he’s for better forecasting – but not changing the formal certification.
“The certification, which the way it’s been for 71 years, in my humble opinion has to be and should continue to be the person who’s at the top of the ballot, the chief executive officer of the state,” he told reporters at a July 24 news conference. “That’s part of the responsibility. It’s a checks and balances reality that’s worked really well.”
How well it has worked is a matter of interpretation.
An organization called the Volcker Alliance that advocates for effective management of government graded the budget practices of all 50 states in five key areas across fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017. Only four states got lower grades than New Jersey’s average grade of a D.
“New Jersey, not surprisingly, was not a top scorer – didn’t get an A in any of our categories,” said William Glasgall, a senior vice president at the Volcker Alliance. “Jersey has a lot of challenges.”
New Jersey got B grades for its reserve funds and transparency, D grades for budget forecasting and budget maneuvers and a D-minus grade for addressing legacy costs.
The constitutional amendment would improve that score through consensus forecasting, in which a three-person panel, rather than only the governor, would certify annual budget revenues before the budget is adopted in June.
Glasgall said 28 states use consensus forecasting now and that while it isn’t necessarily more accurate, it introduced a diversity of viewpoints into revenue estimates.
“Forecasting is really, really important because it’s a decision-making tool. It’s not an expediency measure,” Glasgall said.
Gordon MacInnes, president of the liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said he likes the idea of consensus forecasting but welcomed the Assembly’s delay in acting on it. He said lawmakers should take their time to review and debate a possible change in a policy in place since the current constitution was adopted in 1947.
“If you take 72 years to make the change instead of 71 years, the damage will not be that great,” MacInnes said.
John Tomicki, executive director of the state chapter of the League of American Families, has been observing the creation of state budgets since 1979 and wished the Legislature moved faster.
“It is time for change. It’s a common sense solution. We’ve been through a bunch of budget crises, a bunch of shutdowns,” Tomicki said. “… No governor should yield to the temptation of inflating figures or conflating figures for political whim or some kind of agenda. Everybody wants hard facts.”
In 2016, then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have introduced consensus revenue forecasting and made other changes to the process for putting together the annual state budget. That version of the plan was legislation, not a constitutional amendment, as it wouldn’t have revoked a governor’s authority to certify revenues.