Compiled on every department in the state government, the Office of Legislative Services’ budget reports are not exactly bestsellers, even among the legislators they are intended for.
“We sometimes wonder if they are better read off the budget committees than on,” said David Rosen, director of the OLS’s finance office that produces the documents.
This year, with Gov. Chris Christie’s $28.3 billion budget plan the state’s hottest topic, Rosen doesn’t need to worry so much.
Since Christie has proposed cuts in every department—in some cases deep cuts—legislators have looked to the budget reports by the non-partisan OLS to help make sense of the numbers.
Sometimes, the reports have drawn headlines, including the OLS’s report earlier this month that raised questions about Christie’s claims that a wage freeze of all school staff would avert layoffs in local districts. The OLS said a freeze statewide would help contain local spending increases, but still not make up for the $1.1 billion in proposed state aid cuts.
It’s been a harried season for the OLS in general, with the state budget coming out later than usual and the reports truncated to get them out in time for the legislative hearings.
But Rosen said his office is pretty much caught up now, with virtually every department’s reports available online.
Today, the OLS laid out the hard numbers as Health Commissioner Poonam Alaigh went before the Senate budget committee to defend her department’s spending plan, with its mix of increases in some accounts and reductions in others.
Amid the back and forth testimony about prescription benefits, it was the OLS’s 48-page report that provided the statistics about how many seniors and those with disabilities would be affected by proposed increases in the deductible and co-payments (about 164,000 in all).
When Christie contended that charity care dollars will increase statewide, the OLS explained how the numbers will rise for some hospitals and not for others.
And while legislators argued whether an increased assessment on hospitals is a tax or not, the OLS laid out the dollar figures for all 72 hospitals.
“We put a lot out there, and some will resonate and some will not,” Rosen said. “But we try to raise what we think are substantial policy questions without becoming partisan. That can be tricky sometimes.”
And sometimes, the OLS has raised issues that don’t ever reach the level of even discussion in the budget hearings, like this year’s report on the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and how it spends its money.
“We had an analyst who wanted to do something, and I was on the fence,” Rosen said. “But it doesn’t do any harm, and if someone is interested in it, there is a lot of information here.”