Lack of transparency in budget process frustrates Republicans, advocates

by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor

It’s budget season in New Jersey, which means bills unveiled at the last minute, amendments added on the fly, and hours spent waiting for a massive budget bill, only for it to be voted on just 25 minutes after it was revealed to lawmakers for the first time.

A bipartisan group of critics expressed frustration Monday, when lawmakers advanced a $50.6 billion spending plan, with a process that again happened behind closed doors.

“The budget should be driven by the people,” said Alex Ambrose of progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.

Gov. Phil Murphy and the Democrats who control the Legislature agreed on a final spending plan just three days before the constitutionally imposed deadline of June 30. The final budget, which includes roughly $1.7 billion more in spending than Murphy proposed in March, passed both chambers’ budget committees late Monday night and is scheduled for a final vote Wednesday.

It’s not uncommon for budget negotiations — hashed out by three Democrats, Murphy, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and Senate President Nicholas Scutari — to wrap up with little time to spare. But Republicans, advocates, and taxpayers who were at the Statehouse Monday were visibly frustrated with the process as it dragged on out of sight.

“It’s a total mess,” said Sue Altman, head of New Jersey Working Families Alliance. “Overall, it’s a process that completely centers power politics, and it’s not the type of budgeting meant to lead to optimal spending.” 

While the stressful week is partially expected by those familiar with how New Jersey lawmakers finalize the budget, Altman said she worries it fosters a cynicism that will hurt Democratic candidates in November’s elections.

“Democrats want us to get out and vote, and here we are right here at home with a trifecta that can improve people’s lives. While there are some good things, the process is so corrupted it leaves people with a bad taste in their mouth,” she said.

Republican lawmakers say they’ve been shut out of the process entirely, with their proposals not considered by their colleagues across the aisle. A bid to vote on a GOP tax relief program, which would hand out $4 billion in tax rebates, was rejected by Senate Democrats.

Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), the chamber’s GOP leader, said the Legislature could have taken the billions in unexpected revenue the state has seen as an opportunity to “transform New Jersey structurally.”

“We’ve been talking about this for months. We gave a plan weeks ago,” Oroho said. “Now you’re talking about $50 billion, and this interview will be longer than how long we get to see the budget.” 

Few people know how many so-called Christmas-tree items — funding for lawmakers’ pet projects — are tucked away in the 277-page budget, which was still not posted online Monday more than an hour after the Senate Budget Committee passed it.

Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) said he was disappointed lawmakers had mere minutes to thumb through the bill before voting on it at nearly 10 p.m. Monday. He said Democrats exhibited zero transparency.

“I don’t want to be too rough, but they seriously gave it to us with five minutes to read,” he said. “The Democrats are in full control. If they’re frustrated, the ball is in their court, so if they wanted to give us transparency, they could have.”

Even some Democrats agreed the process doesn’t make sense. While speaking before his vote on the budget, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) lamented that Republicans had a few minutes to read the text.

Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, the Assembly’s budget chair, said legislators expected to be done with the budget earlier than Monday.

“Would we like to have it done earlier? Yeah, we really wanted to have it done last week and that didn’t happen. We’re hoping there’s an opportunity between today and tomorrow, and obviously by the time we vote on Wednesday, for everyone to take a look at the bill,” said Pintor-Marin (D-Essex).

Altman suggested New Jersey take up a multi-year budget process to avoid a stressful last week of June and create a more transparent system that allows taxpayers to participate as the budget is being finalized.

“We deserve better,” said Chris Emigholz of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. 

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