The Senate Budget Committee approved a 281-page bill appropriating more than $52 billion mere minutes after its full text became available to the public Tuesday.
The committee’s Democratic members faced repeated questions throughout the day about what they promised would be a transparent process but ended up being the backroom budget dealing traditionally seen at the State House in June.
Just 11 minutes separated the bill’s text becoming publicly available and the first vote being cast.
All three of the Republicans present at Tuesday’s meeting, State Sens. Michael Testa (R-Vineland), Steve Oroho (R-Franklin) and Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver), throughout the day expressed frustration with a process that had to be stopped multiple times because members did not have the text of bill’s they were meant to be voting on.
All eight of the panel’s Democrats voted in favor, though several of them cast votes in absentia, having left the committee hearing some time before the vote, which took place shortly after 5 p.m.
It also cleared the Assembly Budget Committee.
The budget bill included $46.4 billion in spending. That includes money to boost the state’s pension payment to $6.9 billion, and bump up property tax rebates provided to homeowners through the Homestead Benefit Program.
It also includes a $319 million one-shot tax rebate program enacted as part of a deal reached over the passage of a millionaire’s tax last year.
A $10 billion windfall fueled by better-than-expected revenues and billions of dollars in federal aid will keep the state from leaving its rainy-day fund bone dry. Lawmakers intend to deposit a little more than $1.3 billion into that fund, with another $500 million going into the unreserved surplus.
They’re also opening a multi-year $3.7 billion debt defeasance fund. Most of that money, $2.5 billion is meant to pay down existing debt to save the state on future interest payments. The remaining money, about $1.2 billion, must be spent on capital projects in lieu of borrowing.
Tuesday’s hearing started an hour late and ran for three more, breaking multiple times as lawmakers waited for bills to be drafted or for their text to reach members.
A standoff between Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin over the future of the Schools Development Authority and funding for its mission — constructing schools in economically disadvantaged areas — delayed the release of the budget bill, Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Woodridge) said.
The three Democratic leaders announced they would explore reforming the agency or rolling it into another state entity earlier Tuesday.
Only two individuals, New Jersey Education Association government relations associate director Francine Pfeffer and New Jersey Business and Industry Association Vice President of government affairs Chris Emigholz, testified on the budget.
Both were generally supportive of the budget, though Emigholz expressed concerns about the budget’s sustainability, worrying that the state would find itself unable to fund its record year-over-year increase of nearly 15% from last year’s budget in future years.
The committee also approved a $115 million supplemental appropriations bill whose text remains unavailable to the public.
Sarlo, the legislation’s prime sponsor, could not say what was in the bill. He also declined to say whether it included any “pork” — a reference to legislative priorities that receive funding without going through competitive bidding processes.
“I’m not going to answer that question because I don’t know what you think is pork,” Sarlo said.
The budget itself contained numerous such items, including $300,000 for a little league field in Franklin.
Facing questions over Democrats’ promise of a transparent budget process, Sarlo pointed to numerous hearings held by his committee and its Assembly counterpart in preceding months.
“The budget committee’s had close to 15 to 20 hearings with various departments on this,” he said.
Democrats are angling to put the bill to a full votes in both chambers this Thursday. If they’re successful, and there’s little reason to assume otherwise, they’ll have passed the budget a little less than a week in advance of the June 30 deadline.
That would be a departure from previous years, when negotiations typically stretch to the last possible minute.
“We’ll be voting on the bill at 12, noon sharp,” Sarlo said.