In spending rush, lawmakers find time and money for pet projects

JOHN REITMEYERCOLLEEN O'DEA | JUNE 24, 2021

NJ Spotlight News

New Jersey’s school-aid law will be underfunded for yet another year, and many school districts are facing cuts. But the new state budget will pay for “re-turfing” a park in Metuchen.

New Jersey Transit won’t get enough state aid to halt the practice of raiding its capital resources to fund operations, but money for walking trails at a community park in North Brunswick made it into the Legislature’s final spending bill, as did funding to expand an arts center in East Brunswick.

In all, lawmakers came up with several hundred million dollars in spending on items as they drafted and formally introduced a budget bill earlier this week.

The extra dollars are earmarked for lawmakers’ pet projects and other legislative priorities not in the original budget Gov. Phil Murphy proposed for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

Santa visits the State House

This year’s last-minute add-ons — often referred to as “Christmas tree” items in Trenton — will help push total spending up by nearly 15% year-over-year if Murphy signs the budget legislation unchanged, which he is expected to do. Murphy does have the power to remove individual items from the spending bill.

Final votes on the budget in both full house of the Legislature are scheduled for Thursday, which will be less than 48 hours since the full spending bill was posted on the Legislature’s website on Tuesday.

Democrats who control both the Assembly and Senate defended this year’s budget additions, which are allowed under the Legislature’s constitutional power to write the annual appropriations bill, saying this happens every year during the run-up to a July 1 budget deadline. And they highlighted how some of the new funding will pay for many worthy initiatives that weren’t in Murphy’s original budget proposal. They include increased aid to public colleges and hospitals and more funding to cover extraordinary special-education costs.

Is it pork?

“I don’t know what you think is pork,” Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) told a reporter who pressed him on items that were added into a last-minute supplemental spending bill for the current fiscal year.

“Money that is going to one of our higher (education) institutions for a research lab … Is that pork to you? You can’t answer the question,” Sarlo said.

Many of the legislative spending additions also drew strong praise from advocacy groups for addressing some of their concerns with funding levels that were in Murphy’s own budget proposal. They include providing funding for a conservation school in Sussex County, supporting a pediatric cancer center in New Brunswick and creating a new allocation for mobile health services.

Another legislative addition reversed a proposed diversion from New Jersey’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“The budget preserves the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for its intended purpose — the creation and maintenance of affordable homes — and that no funds will be diverted from the trust fund for other housing or non-housing purposes,” the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice said in a statement.

“Increasing affordable housing options is crucial for both renters in the state, who are more likely to be people of color, and families of color hoping to access homeownership for the first time in New Jersey,” the organization said.

But the annual routine of inserting last-minute spending items into the state budget also serves as an end-run around more traditional state-funding formulas and departmental grant programs. Those usually require formal applications to be submitted and a competitive process to play out to determine which are the best projects to be funded.

Instead, the legislative add-ons move lawmakers’ handpicked projects, like funding for a Little League field in Franklin Township that made it into this year’s budget, to the front of the line.

Add-ons hard to assess

The lawmakers’ spending priorities also do not face the same type of months-long public scrutiny that the governor’s budget proposals receive, including public hearings that typically kick off in March and can last into May. Under the current practice, the legislative add-ons themselves are instead made public only days before final budget votes are held in both houses, and then only for those who know how to decipher a legislative spending bill and other related budget documents.

To be sure, the total amount of money devoted to funding the legislative spending priorities is generally modest in the context of the overall budget, which will total a record $46.4 billion for the 2022 fiscal year.

But over the years, the combined spending on these legislative priorities can start to equal what it would cost to address other long-standing fiscal goals, including ending NJ Transit’s regular capital-to-operating fund transfers and getting much closer to fully funding the state’s school-aid law.

Funding inserted into the annual budget between the 2015 and 2021 fiscal years totaled more than $1.6 billion, according to an NJ Spotlight News analysis of budget documents.

Meanwhile, legislative leaders this year once again did not make public formal budget resolutions that they are generally required under their own rules to disclose within two weeks of final votes on the budget.

Those budget resolutions, among other things, include a description of each requested spending change by its sponsor. They’re also supposed to disclose whether the sponsor or their family members have an “employment relationship or business relationship” with the intended recipient.

Preventing public corruption

The rules requiring budget resolutions were established more than a decade ago as part of a broader package of ethics reforms enacted in response to a public corruption scandal involving the Christmas-tree items.

Asked whether current practices invite possible corruption, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) pointed back to the budget resolutions and promised “they’ll be made available.” Pressed on when, Sweeney said, “hopefully, right after the governor signs the budget.”

In addition to posting a 281-page spending bill just moments before offering the public a final chance to comment on this year’s budget on Tuesday, lawmakers also moved several other pieces of important legislation through committees during the same hearings.

In some cases, some lawmakers complained that bill language was not only not made available to the public, but to lawmakers themselves before the committee votes were held. Several votes were also recorded for Democratic lawmakers who had already left the committee hearings for the day, including for the budget legislation, helping to ensure it could advance.

Bungling budget procedures

While such budget moves are not new by Trenton’s standards, this year’s overall handling of the state budget and the last-minute spending add-ons could have political ramifications since Murphy and all 120 legislative seats will be on the November ballot.

Republicans who are in the minority repeatedly cried foul and abstained as bills came up for committee votes they said they could have otherwise supported had the process been more transparent. One read aloud some of the new spending items as she compared what was given top priority by majority Democrats to the antics of a character from the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld.”

“Some of them sound like George Costanza made them up, you know, with the different names that they have in here,” said Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth).

Murphy’s GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli, a former legislator himself, is also weighing in, saying, if elected, he would “open up” a state budget process that currently “exemplifies everything that is wrong with Phil Murphy’s Trenton.”

Ciattarelli has specifically promised to veto any legislation that hasn’t been subject to public vetting for a full week.

Doing away with ‘backroom deals’

“No more backroom deals that disrespect the taxpayers, stifle free press, and embarrass our state,” Ciattarelli said. “It is far past time to restore transparency and decency to New Jersey’s government.”

For his part, Murphy was asked about the current budget process during a coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, and he largely defended how things are playing out and gave no indication that he is readying any line-item vetoes.

Murphy also said he is open to establishing some reforms, including a waiting period for voting on new legislation. In the past, Murphy has called for making legislation available to the public no less than 72 hours before any votes.

“Would I be open-minded to sort of a window between posting and voting? Yeah, that’s something that I would welcome the opportunity to talk to the legislative leadership about,” Murphy said Wednesday.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-06-24 01:52:47 -0700