Home>Highlight>Democrats called this year’s budget transparent. It was, by Trenton standards

State Sen. Paul Sarlo. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Democrats called this year’s budget transparent. It was, by Trenton standards

Last-minute budget reveal draws activists’ ire

By Nikita Biryukov, September 22 2020 4:41 pm

Democrats in the legislature are facing fire over their last-minute reveal of this year’s budget.

Despite praise from Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Woodridge) calling this year’s budget process transparent, the process was in many ways business as usual in Trenton.

At around 6:30 PM Monday evening, the slate of budget bills was posted online. They passed through Senate and Assembly Budget Committees early Tuesday afternoon and will see a full vote before both chambers on Thursday.

Now, those Democrats leaders have qualified their statements somewhat, saying this year’s budget process was transparent relative to previous negotiations.

“We’ve voted on budgets at 3 in the morning with just score sheets. I moved just score sheets,” Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said. “We’ve got deadlines. Unlike other places, like Pennsylvania, that just would extend and extend and extend, we can’t, so we’re here. I would have loved to extend the budget another month, to be perfectly honest with you. But we had a task to get it done and we got it done.”

But some activists say the legislature’s last minute budget reveal belied their praise for its transparency.

“Set to be voted on in committee tomorrow, which (people) had to sign up to testify by a deadline that was earlier today. Whoever thinks this passes for transparency and respect for public engagement is being incredibly disingenuous,” New Jersey Policy Perspective President Brandon McKoy said on Twitter.

A handful of people testified in either of the Budget Committee hearings held Tuesday.

Still, the praise for the process’s — and its transparency — wasn’t universal, even among Democrats.

Assembly Budget Committee Chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Newark) said that the proposed budget would help prepare the state for a second wave of COVID-19.

Senate President Pro-Tempore Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) said she was disappointed that the budget failed to keep the state’s school funding formula on schedule, but said there are other initiatives that invest in the future of New Jersey’s children.

“We fought hard to restore funding for school-based mental health services and increase funding for special education, two areas which will be critical to helping our students recover from COVID-19 school closures,” Ruiz said.  “Despite an unconventional budget process with unprecedented challenges, we remained committed to investing in social services and protecting the health and well-being of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents.”

So far, there’s been little jockeying for budget votes this year. Sarlo said he believed the bill would pass without much issue when it came to the floor Thursday, despite the expected objections from Republican lawmakers.

“I’m comfortable there are enough Democratic votes to support it,” he said. “I don’t expect any Republican to support it.”

The absence of Democratic infighting makes this year’s budget different from the others passed under Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.

In 2018, negotiations reached an impasse and stayed there for weeks until top Democrats reached an agreement on June 30, when the prospect of an all-Democratic government shutdown and its ensuing political fallout was already looming over legislators looming. That budget was signed into law on July 1, a day after the deadline for a shutdown.

The next year’s process was a little less tense, though it also came down to the wire after Murphy and Democratic leaders in the legislature failed to close a rift over the millionaire’s tax the governor won this year. That budget was signed on June 30.

Even those budgets — if not their final versions — were available days before the final vote, but Sarlo said this year’s performance was still less opaque than past years.

“Budget deals have been struck overnight. Budget committees had to vote without even a document in front of them, so yes, it is much more transparent than other years,” he said.

In another departure from a Trenton norm, lawmakers aren’t waiting until the very last minute to approve a budget. If it passes both chambers on Thursday, Murphy could sign the measure into law as early as Friday, though some of the revenues in the bill come from bonding that will have to be approved by Monday.

That might be a boon for legislative leaders, as the earlier-than-usual vote could allow them to avoid members’ calls for budget pork.

“You really don’t want to go to the 30th, because if you go to the 30th, that’s when really bad things happen, when people decide they’re not voting for something unless something else happens,” Sweeney said.

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