A group of budget experts assembled by Gov. Phil Murphy to advise his new administration on fiscal issues just released a report detailing a number of thorny problems that are straining state finances. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from advancing a bill that would increase the pay of several high-ranking state officials, including executive-branch cabinet members and state Supreme Court justices.
Under legislation that cleared the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee without any discussion yesterday, the salaries of many government officials that are funded primarily through local property taxes would also be increased, including those of Superior Court judges and county prosecutors.
The pay-raise measure was introduced late last month, and it comes after a similar bill failed to make it out of the Democratic-controlled Legislature in late 2016, amid a backlash that developed after its passage was tied to other legislative priorities that were sought at the time by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
This time around, the bill’s supporters say the raises are long overdue, and that they will help to attract top talent to serve in key positions in state and county governments. They also note the newer version of the pay-raise legislation is stripped down compared to prior drafts.
Debt and unfunded liabilities
Murphy, a Democrat, just took office last month, and his new administration has released a series of transition reports, compiled by experts, to advise him on key issues like healthcare and the environment. A transition report was also prepared for state budget issues and it raised a number of concerns about the condition of state finances. They included a high amount of bonded debt, a huge unfunded public-employee pension liability, and the potential for revenue collections to come up short of the lofty projections made by Gov. Chris Christie before he left office.
But the pay-raise bill that’s being sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) would give salary increases to Murphy’s incoming cabinet officials, hiking their pay from $141,000 up to $175,000. The increase would be the first for those positions in over a decade.
The measure would also raise the pay of state Supreme Court justices by $8,000 in each of the next three years, and it would give raises to judges of the Superior Court and Tax Court. County prosecutors would also get raises, as would the executive directors of the majority and minority legislative staff in both the Assembly and Senate and members of the Board of Public Utilities.
A fiscal note for the bill has yet to be prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, but a prior estimate for a wider-ranging pay-raise bill figured the cost to be $7.5 million shared between state and county governments during the first year of the salary hikes, and $10.5 million during the next two years.
Second time around
But that bill never made it out of the Legislature as majority Democrats grew concerned about another element of the legislation, one that would have changed state ethics rules to allow the state’s sitting governor — which was Christie at the time — to profit from a book-publishing deal while still in office. The measure was also linked to another piece of legislation known as Christie’s “newspaper revenge bill” that sought to permit government-legal notices to be published online — including on local-government websites — instead of in newspapers. Both bills were ultimately pulled back by legislative leaders after a backlash that was fueled by newspaper editorials and social-media posts.
Cabinet members, justices, prosecutors
Sweeney described the new version of the pay-raise legislation yesterday as a “cleaner way to move forward.” In addition to allowing for the governor’s book deal, the prior version also would have provided pay raises to a wider group of legislative staffers, an element that didn’t make it into the new incarnation.
“Rather than get into arguments, the political fights that come with that . . . we need to raise the level of salaries that we’re paying our cabinet (members), and our judges, and our prosecutors,” Sweeney said.
Asked if he was concerned about the impact the pay raises for the county-funded position could have on the state’s already sky-high property tax bills, Sweeney suggested the proposed raises are modest and would likely have only a minimal impact on county Board of Chosen Freeholder budgets that run in the millions of dollars across the state.
“You can’t be talking a whole lot of money in the scheme of it,” he said.
A spokesman for Murphy declined comment on the bill yesterday, citing a general policy of the governor’s office to not weigh in on pending legislation.