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Christmas in June. Dems added more than $2B to N.J. budget, including millions for pet projects

NJ.com logo NJ.com 7/4/2022 Derek Hall, nj.com
The New Jersey Senate in session on Budget Day at the Statehouse. Both Chambers voted on the State Budget and other Bills. © Phil McAuliffe For/nj.com/TNS The New Jersey Senate in session on Budget Day at the Statehouse. Both Chambers voted on the State Budget and other Bills.

Christmas comes every June in New Jersey, at least for some members of the political party that holds power in Trenton. It’s the time of year when state policymakers try to snag money for their individual districts while the governor and legislative leaders scramble to finalize a state budget.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday signed a $50.6 billion budget, the largest in New Jersey history, hours before the start of the new fiscal year on Friday. The spending bill flew through the state Legislature last week after being released late Monday night just minutes before legislative committees voted on the measure.

Tacked on to the final budget this year was more than $2 billion in added spending, including an expansion of Murphy’s property tax relief program, as well as millions of dollars for Democratic lawmakers’ pet projects. Those are often referred to as “Christmas tree” items in New Jersey because they are akin to gifts being handed out by the executive branch, which wields significant power over the state’s finances.

Democratic assemblyman Raj Mukherji at his desk as the New Jersey assembly is in session on Budget Day at the Statehouse. Both Chambers voted on the State Budget and other Bills. © Phil McAuliffe For/nj.com/TNS Democratic assemblyman Raj Mukherji at his desk as the New Jersey assembly is in session on Budget Day at the Statehouse. Both Chambers voted on the State Budget and other Bills.

In the days leading up to a final budget, and with Trenton’s coffers overflowing this year thanks to an historic surge in tax revenue, lawmakers submitted a record number of spending requests, according to several sources in the Statehouse.

It is virtually impossible at this point to determine who requested what and which spending requests were denied because legislators have so far declined to provide any details on their individual resolutions.

“We will fulfill all legal and constitutional requirements to provide the public with the information it needs to understand what’s in the budget and how it addresses their needs and priorities,” said Regina Wilder, spokeswoman for state Assembly Democrats.

A spokesman for state Senate Democrats declined to comment Friday when contacted by NJ Advance Media.

Lawmakers are supposed to make their spending requests public 14 days before a vote on the final budget, but that hasn’t happened in years.

Instead, top leaders in Trenton negotiate outside of the public eye, and backroom deals are finalized. It is a yearly ritual in New Jersey that has been commonplace under both Democrats and Republicans.

“This is a consistent complaint,” Peter Chen, a senior analyst with left-leaning New Jersey Policy Perspective, recently told NJ Advance Media. “When things shift behind closed doors, suddenly special interest groups find their pet projects added, and the average New Jerseyan finds a proposal that would have helped them instead gets reduced or forgotten.”

Requests from individual lawmakers, along with other additions, tacked on about $2.1 billion in new spending to the final state budget that was signed into law last week, according to data from the state’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

Among those are several initiatives, like property tax relief and $85 million for new anti-hunger programs, that garner broad support or help residents who are most in need. Many other spending requests are added with no detailed descriptions or explanations from Murphy and policymakers.

The list of additions includes $30 million for Union County capital projects, $3 million for a skating rink in East Brunswick, $2 million for an Astroturf athletic field in Metuchen, $2 million for the Collingswood Grand Ballroom and more than $1 million for police athletic facilities in South Plainfield and West Orange, just to name a few.

Senate Minority Leader Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, bemoaned the lack of transparency in the budget process and “missed opportunities” in the final spending plan, while speaking from the floor of the Senate chamber in Trenton on Wednesday.

“This budget misses a historic opportunity to give back billions to taxpayers who are struggling with high taxes and inflation,” Oroho said. “Instead of the $8 billion of tax relief that Republicans proposed, Democrats are giving back scraps while doling out billions of dollars for pork projects that we can do without.”

It wasn’t just lawmakers with last-minute spending requests. Murphy found $300 million for Rutgers University, including $100 million for the school’s athletic program, that he quietly added in the final days of budget negotiations.

The surprise funding for Rutgers was among a slew of last-minute demands from the Murphy administration, according to one lawmaker who called it a “stunning” move in the wake of “fiscal irresponsibility” at the Rutgers athletic department.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, defended the budget process in his opening remarks from the Senate floor in Trenton on Wednesday, while acknowledging some spending in the budget “that none of us will particularly like.”

“You’re gonna hear members today stand up, and you’re gonna hear the word Christmas tree, you’re gonna hear the word pork, you’re gonna hear the words lavish spending,” Sarlo said. “Those words mean nothing to the people who are receiving this — the investments we’re making in communities, in counties, in various state programs.”

Sarlo also highlighted historic spending initiatives that are being used to shore up the state’s finances and prepare for an economic downturn, including $4.2 billion for debt reduction, a second consecutive full payment to New Jersey’s public worker pension fund and $6.3 billion to create the state’s largest-ever surplus.

But it’s the items that are missing from the final budget that shine a light on the millions of dollars added at the last minute. This budget fell $600 million short of fully funding public schools, for example, and NJ Transit still doesn’t have a dedicated funding stream.

New Jersey businesses are confronting a $300 million tax increase to replenish the state’s unemployment fund, which was depleted amid shutdowns during the pandemic. Legislation to use surplus money to replenish the fund was axed at the last minute, despite having bipartisan support.

And proposals to expand safety net programs for working-class, low-income families — initiatives that seemed sure to get done just weeks ago — fell by the wayside in the final days of budget negotiations.

In a statement released last week, For the Many NJ, a statewide coalition of advocates and policy experts decried a lack of transparency in the budget process and a missed opportunity to make New Jersey “affordable for all.”

“When billions of dollars in funding are negotiated away from the public eye, it’s inevitably the public who loses out,” the coalition said in a joint statement. “The hard-working New Jerseyans who are struggling the most with rising prices, rent and inflation do not have highly-paid lobbyists and special-interest dollars to fight for them.”

Banessa Quiroga, a member of Make the Road New Jersey, is one of those hard-working New Jerseyans who is left wondering why key initiatives like an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and full funding of the Excluded New Jerseyans fund were lost, even as the state is swimming in a cash surplus it may never see again.

Th Excluded New Jerseyans Fund was created last year with an initial $40 million to provide assistance for undocumented immigrants and other workers excluded from economic aid during the pandemic. Many in that community are essential workers who kept the state humming during the worst stages of the pandemic.

“This budget is a missed opportunity for essential workers like me and for immigrants across New Jersey,” Quiroga said in a statement. “These measures would have helped my family make ends meet in a time of unprecedented inflation and skyrocketing rents.”

Here are just a few examples of the Christmas tree items and last-minute spending added to the final budget:

  • Union County Capital Projects: $30 million
  • Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health - Newark Projects: $25 million
  • Film Industry Strategic Support Fund: $15 million
  • Camden County Parks and Trails Program: $10 million
  • Passaic Parking Authority Capital Improvements: $10 million
  • Middlesex County Economic Development Projects: $8.5 million
  • Paterson Great Falls Redevelopment Project: $8 million
  • Passaic Pulaski Park Expansion: $6 million
  • East Brunswick Skating Rink and Recreation Facility: $3 million
  • Metuchen School District Astroturf Athletic Field: $2 million
  • Collingswood Grand Ballroom: $2 million
  • City of Linden Capital Projects: $1.5 million
  • Keansburg Public Beach House Renovation: $1 million
  • South Plainfield Police Athletic League Field Replacement: $525,000
  • West Orange Police Athletic League Athletic Facility: $500,000
  • Teaneck Elks Club: $10,000

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Derek Hall may be reached at dhall@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @dereknhall.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit nj.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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