Lawmakers who play an important role in drafting the state’s annual budget are holding a series of public hearings starting next week to enable residents to weigh in on Gov. Phil Murphy’s latest spending proposal.
Four hearings devoted solely to public testimony on state budget issues will be held this month, starting with a 10 a.m. hearing at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark on March 10. Other hearings will be held in Glassboro on March 12, and in Trenton on March 18 and March 25, according to a schedule that lawmakers unveiled on Monday.
The hearings will give taxpayers, public-policy advocates, and interest groups an opportunity to tell lawmakers who serve on the Assembly and Senate budget committees what they want to see in the final version of the state budget that will be enacted for fiscal year 2021, which begins on July 1.
Testimony taken during such hearings in the past has proven to be influential with the lawmakers who ultimately have the responsibility of drafting the state’s annual appropriations act. In fact, in recent years lawmakers have added funding to line items for things like K-12 school aid, New Jersey Transit and programs that combat the opioid epidemic in the wake of public testimony. Proposed tax hikes have also been tweaked or even scrapped after facing criticism from residents.
Looking for ‘a fair and responsible budget’
“This information helps greatly as the Legislature works to craft a fair and responsible budget that meets the needs of all New Jersey families,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee.
Under Murphy’s $40.85 billion budget proposal, total spending in FY2021 would increase by about 5% compared to the budget for the current fiscal year that was signed into law late last June. A good share of the proposed spending increase that Murphy is calling for would benefit the public-worker pension system, K-12 school districts and New Jersey Transit. Income-qualified public college students would also get new tuition assistance and state budget reserves would receive a boost, under Murphy’s plan.
To help fund the spending increases, Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has proposed a series of tax hikes. They include a higher income-tax rate on earnings over $1 million up to $5 million, a tax hike Murphy has unsuccessfully pushed for in his two prior budget proposals.
The governor is also seeking to hike the state tax that’s levied on the sale of each pack of cigarettes, from $2.70 to $4.35. A “corporate-responsibility fee” on private businesses with more than 50 of their employees enrolled in Medicaid would also be established.
There are also several new tax breaks embedded in Murphy’s proposed budget, including a continued expansion of the state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers. It also counts on an elimination of a state income tax levy on combat pay earned by members of the armed forces.
Power of the Legislature
In addition, spending on public-worker health care is projected to decline slightly in FY2021, and the Murphy administration said another nearly $400 million in savings among the various government departments is booked in his budget plan.
But Murphy needs help from lawmakers — including those who serve on the respective budget committees in the Assembly and Senate — to make any significant changes to state spending and tax policies. In fact, the state constitution gives lawmakers, and not the governor, the power to initiate tax increases through legislation, and to draft an annual spending bill.
In some years, the final budget that gets signed into law by the governor looks nearly identical to what was first proposed in February. In other years, lawmakers have made major changes, such as last year when they again rebuffed Murphy’s push to establish a higher tax rate on millionaires.
This year, top legislative leaders, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), are once again voicing concerns about Murphy’s call for tax hikes. If they continue to resist the governor’s call for new or higher taxes, significant revisions would have to be made by lawmakers before a June 30 deadline for a new budget that’s set in the state constitution.
Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) promised on Monday to give Murphy’s latest budget plan a full “structural review.” That process will begin with the public hearings that are being convened by both the Assembly and Senate budget committees this month.
“We want to make effective investments to expand economic opportunities and address the needs of the state’s residents at the same time we eliminate wasteful spending,” Sarlo said.
Here are details of the budget hearings. Those who wish to testify can register ahead of time by following this link.
- March 10, 10:00 a.m., Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Campus Center Atrium, 150 Bleeker St., Newark;
- March 12, 10:00 a.m., Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Rowan University, Rohrer College of Business, Business Hall, 271 Mullica Hill Road, Glassboro;
- March 18, 9:30 a.m., Assembly Budget Committee, State House Annex, Committee Room 11, 125 West State St., Trenton;
- March 25, 9:30 a.m., Assembly Budget Committee, State House Annex, Committee Room 11, 125 West State St., Trenton.