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With N.J. budget flush with cash, lawmakers want to snag at least $500M for pet projects

NJ.com logo NJ.com 6/24/2021 Samantha Marcus, nj.com
Voters in New Jersey are going to the polls Tuesday, June 4, to decide which candidates will get their party’s nomination to run for state Assembly seats later this year. Pictured is the Assembly chamber in Trenton. © Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med/Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med Voters in New Jersey are going to the polls Tuesday, June 4, to decide which candidates will get their party’s nomination to run for state Assembly seats later this year. Pictured is the Assembly chamber in Trenton.

With New Jersey’s state budget this year uniquely flush with billions in cash from federal pandemic aid and soaring tax revenues, it was inevitable many state lawmakers would request a share of the pot to keep their constituents happy.

But the list of legislators’ pet projects, commonly known at the Statehouse as “Christmas tree” items because they are akin to gifts, could be a record-setter. There are roughly 150 requests with a price tag of more than $500 million, according to an NJ Advance Media analysis of the latest version of $46.4 billion state budget.

Some of the requests are parochial, such as $15 million for demolition work by the Camden County Improvement Authority and $25,000 for the construction of a YMCA building in Union County. Others are for big-ticket items that affect thousands of residents, such as $100 million in “extraordinary aid” to reimburse school districts for special education services.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, the father of a young woman with a developmental disability, has made covering more special education costs a priority. The state is expected to cover 85% of extraordinary special education expenses, and with this additional $100 million — bringing the total appropriation for next year to $400 million — that obligation is met, a Senate staffer said.

The roughly $500 million in budget requests are part of the $1.6 billion in additional spending the Democrat-led state Legislature and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy have negotiated since Murphy introduced the budget in February. The added spending includes an extra $505 million for the public pension fund and bigger property tax relief.

“We crafted a budget together, so arguably everything we do in this budget we all do together,” a senior legislative source with knowledge of the budget negotiations told NJ Advance Media.

MORE: Republicans criticize big spending, ‘minuscule’ tax cuts in $46.4B N.J. budget

During a state Assembly Budget Committee hearing on the budget late Tuesday, Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, offered a harsh critique of “these pork bills.”

DiMaso noted the budget add-ons amounted to $135 million in the current budget cycle, “but because we found some money,” the budget requests are four times that amount for the coming budget year.

“My favorite is $500,000 for the spotted lanternfly,” DiMaso said sarcastically. (The spotted lanternfly is a species of insect state environmental officials say needs to be destroyed because it can hurt local agriculture.)

DiMaso also pressed Committee Chairwoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, to disclose which lawmaker requested each grant. Lawmakers enacted rules more than 15 years ago that require disclosure of the budget requests and who made them two weeks before the budget is approved, she said.

“Why doesn’t the public know who asked to put this money aside?” she asked.

Pintor Marin replied that budget resolutions “are always made public.” But she said she did not know when that would happen.

State Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, asked by reporters about when the budget requests would be released, also said he did not know.

“They should be released sooner than later,” Sarlo said. “I agree with you on that.”

The budget add-ons reflect a wide variety of priorities, often driven by lawmakers and lobbyists with the most clout.

Some requests tug at the heart strings while others are a bit mystifying.

There are usually multiple requests for cancer research and facilities construction, and this year is no different. There’s $12 million for the South Jersey Cancer Program at MD Anderson at Cooper Health, $10 million for a pediatric cancer center at the New Jersey Cancer Institute, and $2 million for the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research.

University Hospital in Newark, the state’s only public hospital and the busiest trauma center in the state, is in line to receive $20 million for capital improvements, according to the budget.

And law schools will share $2 million to provide legal assistance for tenants as an eviction crisis looms.

There’s a single request for a “local transportation projects fund” with a $75 million price tag.

And Metuchen, a square-mile affluent community in Middlesex County, could be the lucky recipient of two grants. One resolution would spend $350,000 to re-turf Myrtle - Charles Park and $100,000 would be used to renovate the volunteer fire station, according to the resolutions.

Whether you call them “Christmas tree” requests, pork barrel spending or budget add-ons, they have always been a central part of budget negotiations in New Jersey.

In 2000s, the requests ran about $200 million a year, until federal investigators charged then-Senate Budget Chairman Wayne Bryant, D-Camden, with using his influence to steer money to what was then known as University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Stratford, where he was given a “low-show job.” He was convicted on corruption charges and served 40 months in prison.

Sarlo downplayed this size of this year’s budget add-ons.

“It’s no different than any other budget,” the senator said. “Some budgets have a little bit more than others and some have a little bit less.”

NJ Advance Media staff writer Brent Johnson contributed to this report.

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Samantha Marcus may be reached at smarcus@njadvancemedia.com.

Susan K. Livio may be reached at slivio@njadvancemedia.com

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