GOP Lawmakers Frustrated by Lack of Transparency About ‘De-Appropriations’

Highly placed Dems like Senate Majority Leader Weinberg also raise concerns about the Legislature's recently enacted stopgap spending bill
L to R: Republican state Sen. Steve Oroho (Sussex) and Republican Assemblyman Harold Wirths (Sussex)

Lawmakers are apparently not going to restore any state funding for property-tax relief and hundreds of other state programs put on hold as part of a placeholder budget deal.

Members of a special bipartisan legislative oversight panel were given the authority this week to reject a list of proposed “de-appropriations” that will impact nearly 600 different state budget items. But those lawmakers are not scheduled to meet to request any changes before an end-of-the-week deadline.

The panel’s planned inaction comes as its Republican members — Sen. Steve Oroho (Sussex) and Assemblyman Harold Wirths (Sussex) — have been asking for more information about how the proposed funding changes could impact everything from opioid addiction programs to financial assistance for tenants.

Funding for the Homestead property-tax relief program that goes to thousands of seniors, disabled residents and low-income homeowners is among the items put on the chopping block thanks to revenue losses brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Budget cut or funding shift?

What is unclear now is exactly which items on the long list of de-appropriations — which hasn’t been widely distributed or published on the Legislature’s website — represent an actual budget cut or may instead be a funding shift to using federal dollars or other available resources.

“As the list exists now, it is completely devoid of any information that would allow any of us to make an informed decision,” the two Republican members who serve on the oversight panel said in a letter sent to their majority Democratic colleagues earlier this week.

The questions about the proposed de-appropriations are just the latest to be raised after a stopgap spending bill covering state operations between now and the end of September was formally introduced, passed by both houses, and enacted by the governor, all in less than a week’s time.

Among those airing concerns about the rushing out of the 110-page spending bill is Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). She’s flagged language that was inserted into the spending legislation that appears to lay the groundwork for a controversial plan to privatize portions of Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

‘Sneaky’ way to alter public policy

Weinberg called it a “sneaky, backdoor way to attempt to change important public policy.”

New Jersey generally operates under a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year. But this year, the deadline to pass a new fiscal-year budget was pushed back to Sept. 30 as part of a law Gov. Phil Murphy enacted in the wake of the ongoing pandemic that also delayed the deadline for submitting state income-tax payments, from mid-April to mid-July.

To extend appropriations beyond the typical June 30 deadline, lawmakers had to draft and send to Murphy the $7.7 billion stopgap spending bill before July 1. The spending bill covers appropriations for July, August and September, and it also calls for the de-appropriation of over $1 billion in spending that had been authorized in the original budget for fiscal year 2020 that Murphy enacted last year.

In addition, fine print was written into the stopgap spending bill to give six lawmakers who sit on a special bipartisan oversight panel the power to reject the list of proposed de-appropriations.

The same section of the bill gives members of the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, or JBOC, until Saturday to make a final decision on the 581 items that were initially put in reserve as part of the Murphy administration’s effort to offset projected revenue losses. But the committee is not scheduled to meet before its Saturday deadline, and if it does not act the proposed de-appropriations are automatically triggered, according to the spending bill.

In budget documents released in May, Department of Treasury officials noted some of the proposed de-appropriations represent a simple shift in funding, from state resources to federal dollars. Others appear to be routine “lapses,” a budget adjustment that occurs when planned spending falls short of original estimates, resulting in budget savings without reducing any services.

But other de-appropriations appear to be genuine budget cuts, such as the $131 million to fund a recent round of Homestead property-tax relief payments.

Republicans raise questions

Among other items that appear on the de-appropriations list that have generated questions from Republicans is funding for veterans’ burials, a school that serves the deaf and programs that protect against the spread of invasive diseases and pests.

In a letter sent on Tuesday to the four Democrats who serve on the joint committee, the two Republican members, Oroho and Wirths, asked them to join in their calls for more information about the potential implications of those de-appropriations and others.

“We are formally conveying that we wish to be recorded as disapproving this list and solicit your support in opposing it, or any similar list officially transmitted to us,” the two Republicans wrote their four Democratic colleagues on JBOC. They are Weinberg, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex).

Still, if the panel did meet to reject de-appropriations, any changes would likely bring on the need for other last-minute cuts or budget adjustments to be made since the state Constitution prohibits operating deficits.

“The de-appropriations are the result of mutual negotiation involving the Senate and the administration and necessitated by a lack of resources caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Regina Wilder, a spokeswoman for the Assembly Majority Office.

“All parties prioritized the funding of the most essential of services for three months,” she said.

A spokesman for the Senate Majority Office declined comment Wednesday.

In a typical year, a series of public hearings are held to go over appropriations and proposed cuts before a final budget is assembled and voted on. But those hearings were shelved this year amid the pandemic, even as lawmakers returned to Trenton for the first time in months earlier this week to vote on the stopgap-spending bill. And not listed in plain language in the bill were the proposed de-appropriations, or another $850 million in spending increases that Murphy had planned to begin on July 1, but ultimately shelved in response to the pandemic.

Among those sounding off on the lack of transparency this week was Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton-based think tank that has been pressing lawmakers to hike taxes on the wealthy to obviate the need for significant spending cuts.

“This budget proposal, and the process through which it was developed, is an insult to the taxpayers of New Jersey,” McKoy said as the spending bill was still up for consideration earlier this week.

The governor and lawmakers still have an opportunity to raise new revenues in the next spending bill, which is due to be enacted by the end of September, McKoy said.