Resolution Granting Subpoena Power to Budget Committee Moves to Full Assembly

For backers of new bill, subpoenas are only way to get administration to answer questions about lottery, budget, other key issues

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), chairman, state Assembly Budget Committee
Frustrated with continual rebuffs from the Christie administration, the state Assembly Budget Committee today invoked a 60-year-old law that enables it to issue subpoenas.

The committee passed the resolution (AR-151) 6-4 along party lines. The full Assembly must now approve the measure.

If it does, the budget panel will be able to secure information from the governor’s office about such substantive issues as the New Jersey State Lottery, Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, the half-billion-dollar revenue shortfall, and the budget itself.

Last week, he Assembly voted to extend the transportation committee’s subpoena power over the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (AR-91). If it does the same for the new resolution, the budget panel will become only the second Assembly committee to be granted this authority.

Republicans call the budget committee’s move a political maneuver, arguing that it will take place against the backdrop of Gov. Chris Christie’s reelection campaign.

But Democrats say they are more than justified due to repeated refusals of New Jersey Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff and other administration officials to answer questions on the plan to partially privatize the state lottery and equally important issues.

“This committee — and thus the elected representatives of the people — has been denied the testimony of executive branch officials on issues with significant state budget impacts no less than four times since September,” said Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), budget committee chairman and cosponsor of the resolution.

In some cases, such as the lottery, the state Assembly does not have the power to change the administration’s actions, regardless of testimony. But Democrats say that just by airing the details that lead to the administration’s decisions, they are providing a service to the public.

New Jersey’s governor is widely considered one of the most powerful in the nation. He controls state government’s daily operations and has the authority to take many other actions by issuing executive orders. The Legislature sends the governor bills, but if he vetoes them, it takes a supermajority to override the veto. Republican lawmakers have voted almost in lock step with Christie during his first term, and the Democrats, while controlling both houses, do not have enough votes to override the governor’s vetoes.

The Assembly does not need the approval of Christie or even of the Senate to give subpoena power to one of its committees.

Over the past several months, when administration officials failed to show up for hearings, budget committee members argued that they should be awarded powers similar to those granted the transportation committee.

“Invoking subpoena power is not a step we would take lightly, but the failure of the Christie administration to respond to important and relevant inquiries makes it necessary,” he added.

If the full Assembly ratifies the resolution, the budget panel will be reconstituted as a special committee with authority to investigate “all matters related to the State budget and State finances.”

As such, the committee could use subpoenas to compel public employees to testify and provide documents.

Giving a committee subpoena power dates back to a 1953 law, but it is a power that has been rarely used. According to Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), legislators have issued subpoenas only four times in the past two decades.

One of those was this past October, when the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee subpoenaed four Port Authority officials.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and chair of that committee, said the authority has failed to adequately respond to the subpoenas seeking information about the 2011 toll hikes, the cancelled Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel project, and the referral of candidates by Christie for jobs at the Port Authority.

“Everyone knows this tactic is not productive and is being used as political fodder,” said O’Scanlon, the ranking Republican on the budget committee.

The Republicans have dismissed the committee’s recent investigations into the state lottery as purely political, since legislators have no power to stop state officials from awarding what could amount to a $1 billion contract over 15 years to the sole bidder.

What’s more, the hearings come in an election year, one in which Christie holds a commanding lead in the polls over Sen. Barbara Buono, (D-Middlesex) — the only Democrat in the gubernatorial race.

But Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), who is both a committee member and sponsor of the subpoena resolution, disagreed.

“Collecting information from the executive branch is a critical component of the General Assembly and Assembly Budget Committee’s duties in constructing and overseeing the state budget,” she said.

“We have asked for testimony on substantive issues that have a significant and lasting impact on state finances and require oversight, but [received] a lack of cooperation from the Christie administration,” she continued.

The issues mentioned in the resolution are revenue collections, state budget contingency plans, private management services for the state lottery, and federal relief funding in response to Hurricane Sandy. Additionally, it states that the committee could investigate “any facts it deems relevant in determining whether the circumstances associated with the state budget and state finances necessitate further legislative action.”

That could open up the possibility of subpoenas being issued for information during upcoming budget hearings. Last year, committee members at times stated their annoyance when cabinet members or other administration officials did not provide answers to all their questions.

Christie is scheduled to unveil his budget to the Legislature next Tuesday.

How effective the subpoenas may be is unknown. The transportation committee’s original subpoena power, granted last spring, was to have expired next month. But the Assembly renewed it — largely by a partisan vote, with the Democratic majority in favor — because the committee maintains that Port Authority officials continue to stonewall them.

The same state law that allows for the subpoenas treats the issue very seriously. It gives legislative leadership — in this case, the Assembly Speaker — the power to hold in contempt anyone who refuses to answer a subpoena or who fails to provide all the information required.

That person could then be arrested and tried before a joint session of both houses of the Legislature. If both houses find the person guilty of contempt, he or she could face up to six months in jail.

Like the transportation committee’s power, the budget committee’s subpoena authority would expire at the end of the current legislative session, which is January 14, 2014.

Editor’s note: The first version of this story was published before the Budget Committee had ratified AR-51. This version has been updated to reflect the new status of the resolution.