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Gov. Phil Murphy. (Photo: Office of the Governor.)

Murphy defends opaque budget process

Governor signals openness to reforms requiring waiting periods for bills

By Nikita Biryukov, June 23 2021 5:03 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy defended the process that saw a $46.4 billion spending bill approved by budget committees in both chambers mere moments after the legislation’s text became publicly available, but he expressed willingness to explore reforms to bring transparency to the process.

“I think as a general matter, New Jersey’s got a good process,” he said at Wednesday’s virus briefing. “So, for instance I’ll tell you from our side, [we] presented our budget in February. Countless hearings. I think 19 before the Assembly Budget Committee, 17 before the Senate of our cabinet members, regular revenue updates, particularly as of late when revenues began to spike meaningfully higher than expectation.”

Murphy’s defense of the breakneck process echoes ones delivered by Senate leaders Tuesday afternoon.

Democrats in the legislature faced fire from Republican lawmakers, good government groups and the press Tuesday after advancing their budget and other bills just minutes after their text was publicly released.

Voting on the budget bill began just 11 minutes after the 281-page bill was published online and shared with reporters. The Senate Budget Committee cleared a $115 million supplemental spending bill that included $5 million to boost prize purses at the state’s horse racing tracks without any of the bill’s provisions released publicly.

At the time of the vote, not even the panel’s Republican members knew the bill’s contents.

“They posted and voted upon budget-related bills that hadn’t even been written yet,” said State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver). “Nobody, not legislators voting on the bills nor the public that will be impacted, had any legitimate opportunity to review the legislation, understand it, or make suggestions for improvement.”

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a progressive non-profit, said the process “lacked adequate transparency and a strong democratic process” but praised specific policy measures it said would reduce racial and social inequities.

Despite the furor, Tuesday’s budget proceedings are far from a departure from Trenton norms. Unwritten bills have been voted on before, and the practice is particularly common in June, when lawmakers scramble to reach a budget deal before July 1.

Murphy said he was willing to discuss creating a waiting period that would require bills to be available for a number of days before seeing votes in the legislature. He made a similar proposal in an ethics package he unveiled last February.

That bill, like all others in the package, never got off the ground, but it would have required the lawmakers to delay votes on bills and resolutions until the Office of Legislative Services had made them publicly available online for at least 72 hours.

The governor expressed optimism about the prospects of advancing similar legislation Wednesday.

“I don’t want to speak for them,” he said, referring to the legislature, “but I’m reasonably optimistic. Maybe naively so, but I think there’s a general sense that folks want to, at every turn, do the right thing.”

It’s not clear there’s a foundation for the governor’s optimism. New Jersey’s legislators have been resistant to reforms to increase oversight of actions within the statehouse.

A push to increase the number of income-reporting brackets on financial disclosures legislators file with the Office of Legislative Services backed by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) has gone nowhere since he announced he’d pursue reforms last January.

None of the ethics bills Murphy proposed got as much as a committee hearing, and lawmakers have no intent to enact reforms to the Open Public Records Act to rein in an exemption that can be used to bar the disclosure of most every communication made by a given legislator.

There’s no equivalent exemption at the local level, though numerous other OPRA carveouts exist.

At the same time, Murphy accepted some responsibility for the opaque nature of final days of budget season, saying both sides were responsible for the process to some degree.

In any case, no reforms will be made before both chambers of the legislature meet Thursday to advance the budget and other bills, including a 197-page bill expanding already lavish tax incentives while loosening requirements on corporations seeking to take advantage of the multibillion-dollar tax break program that as advanced by the Assembly Budget Committee with no publicly available text.

Murphy declined to say whether he would line-item veto any of the “Christmas Tree” items present in the budget bill, also declining to say when he would put pen to paper.

“I’m not going to make news today, but obviously we’re not going to let any grass grow,” he said. “And obviously it’ll get done by June 30th, I can tell you that much.”

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