NJ Budget 2020: No Hearings Scheduled as Groups Press for Open Process

Gov. Phil Murphy set to offer new budget but next steps not clear ahead of Oct. 1 deadline
Credit: (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
New Jersey State House, Trenton

More than 20 different groups representing the interests of labor, low-income residents, environmentalists and others are urging Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders to be more open to the public as they advance a new state spending plan over the next few weeks.

In a letter sent to the state’s top leaders Wednesday, the members of a coalition of interest groups called “For the Many NJ” said the next budget will be “one of the most consequential budgets in New Jersey’s history,” citing the coronavirus pandemic and its ongoing impact on state finances.

Murphy is due to present a spending plan for fiscal year 2021 by early next week, and the coalition’s letter said there will then only be about a month left before it must be adopted by lawmakers. The coalition is calling for the timely release of important budget documents during that period and for public hearings that allow for virtual participation.

“Given the scale of the COVID fiscal collapse and lessons learned in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it is imperative that decision-makers meet the moment with integrity and openness,” the coalition members said in the letter, according to a copy that was emailed to NJ Spotlight.

“We deserve a transparent process that reflects the gravity of the fiscal crisis and its long-term impacts,” the letter went on to say.

Murphy and fellow Democrats, who hold majorities in the Legislature, agreed earlier this year to extend the typical fiscal year by three months in response to the pandemic and the economic disruption. That means the next state budget is now due to be adopted by Oct. 1.

Deadline for budget adoption: Oct. 1

The governor’s office has indicated Murphy is planning to put forward his spending proposal for what will be a nine-month fiscal “year” 2021 on Aug. 25. But it’s unclear what exactly will happen next in the run-up to the Oct. 1 deadline.

So far, no public budget hearings are listed on the latest calendar posted on the Legislature’s website.

The coalition members said the letter was sent to Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), and to the members of the respective budget committees in both houses.

Reached by phone after the letter was released, Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) told NJ Spotlight that lawmakers “want to be as transparent as possible” during the upcoming budget process. But he also said lawmakers will have to work within a truncated schedule, given the state remains in a public-health emergency and that many key government officials are still involved in the ongoing response to the pandemic.

“It is my intent to do everything we can to do this in a way that is as transparent and as open as possible,” Sarlo said.

Regina Wilder, a spokeswoman for Coughlin, promised public hearings are already in the “scheduling phase.”

“The Speaker remains committed to open government and will not allow the unprecedented economic crisis caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to deter transparency,” she said.

Murphy spokesman Darryl Isherwood said the administration is “committed to transparency and communication in the budget building process.”

“As we have done in the past, we will continue to communicate with all stakeholders and will take the same steps to promote transparency during this process as we would during a normal budget cycle,” Isherwood said.

Pandemic’s impact on NJ economy

New Jersey has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, with nearly 190,000 reported infections, and more than 14,000 confirmed deaths. The health crisis has also triggered a series of economic restrictions aimed at slowing the rate of new infections. But those restrictions have also had a significant impact on the state economy and on the pace of tax collections that sustain the budget.

In a typical year, public hearings on proposed appropriations and cuts are held before a final budget is assembled and voted on by lawmakers. The state treasurer also makes several appearances before the respective budget committees in both houses, including to update members on the latest tax-collection trends.

But in a normal year the budget process begins in late February or early March, leaving several months for hearings to be held before the deadline for a final budget, which usually comes at the end of June.

This year, the public hearing schedule was shelved at the onset of the pandemic, just days after Murphy presented his original budget plan for FY2021. That’s helped to fuel concerns that transparency will not be a major priority during the upcoming budget process, especially since the state’s leaders have a history of cutting deals behind closed doors in the final days before a budget deadline.

Lawmakers were able to return to Trenton for the first time in months in late June to vote on a nearly $8 billion stopgap-spending bill that is covering state operations for July, August and September.

But adoption of the stopgap budget also produced an embarrassing episode for Murphy and legislative leaders after the more than 100-page spending bill was introduced just days before it had to be approved. Controversial language inserted into the bill — related to the potential privatization of state parks — initially went largely unnoticed, and several lawmakers acknowledged they didn’t know about the privatization language until after they voted for the bill.

Looking for transparency, inclusivity

The letter sent by the “For the Many NJ” coalition members calls for establishing a budget process for the next few weeks that is “as transparent and inclusive as possible.” Among the more than 20 different groups that signed the letter were the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey Sierra Club, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, New Jersey Policy Perspective, and the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

The letter cautions that “if the development of one of the most consequential budgets in New Jersey’s history is hidden from view, the executive and legislative branches risk undermining the public’s trust and perpetuating the notion that the budget process is nothing more than last minute deal-making behind closed doors.”

“We ask policymakers to adhere to principles of transparency and accountability with clear communication and opportunities for the public to review and analyze the forthcoming budgetary proposals,” the letter went on to say.

The letter also raises transparency concerns about state borrowing that can occur without voter approval under a separate law enacted by Murphy last month. That law allows up to $9.9 billion in new debt to be issued between now and the middle of next year to help offset revenue losses tied to the pandemic. It also established a four-member panel of lawmakers that has the power to approve or reject any individual debt issues proposed by the Murphy administration.

But the borrowing law says little about how much information on proposed borrowing issues must be made public before they are voted on, or whether the four-member panel must hold its votes in public.

“We urge our state decision-makers to release relevant budget documents in a timely fashion, commit to transparency in the state bonding review committee process, and hold legislative budget hearings with adequate notice and the option of virtual participation for the public’s safety,” the letter said.