Want to Weigh In on Murphy’s Budget? Write It Down

A budget season shortened by the response to the pandemic prompts lawmakers to forego public hearings, even remote sessions
Credit: (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)
Aug. 25, 2020: Gov. Phil Murphy waves to the audience before his budget address at Rutgers University’s SHI Stadium in Piscataway.

Here’s yet-another change brought about by COVID-19: New Jerseyans who want to comment on Gov. Phil Murphy’s latest budget proposal — for, against or somewhere in between — will get to do so only via email or snail mail.

Lawmakers have announced that instead of holding a round of in-person or virtual public hearings to gather comments on the revised fiscal year 2021 budget that Murphy proposed last week, they will instead be using the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services to collect written feedback.

Testimony on Murphy’s budget will be accepted by the agency’s Legislative Budget and Finance Office and distributed to the members of the Assembly and Senate budget committees through Sept. 11, according to a notice sent to the press and posted on the Legislature’s website.

Lawmakers typically hold a series of public hearings to collect in-person feedback in the weeks that follow the governor’s budget address. Those events provide a way for taxpayers, public-policy advocates, and others to tell members of the Assembly and Senate budget committees exactly what they like or don’t like about the governor’s budget proposal.

Testimony taken during such hearings has been influential with the lawmakers who ultimately have the responsibility of drafting the state’s annual appropriations act. In fact, in recent years lawmakers have funded line items for things like K-12 school aid, New Jersey Transit and programs that combat the opioid epidemic based on such public testimony. Proposed tax hikes have also been tweaked or even scrapped in the wake of criticism from residents.

But this year, the budget season is being condensed into just five weeks in response to the pandemic and a decision made earlier this year to rejigger the fiscal calendar, adding three extra months to 2020. That decision forced the governor to tear up a budget plan for FY2021 that he unveiled in February, before New Jersey’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.

And now, it also means only hearings with key state officials like the state treasurer and other department heads are being held prior to the deadline for enacting a new budget, which is Oct. 1. The first of those hearings will begin on Sept. 8, according to lawmakers.

Nine-month ‘year’

Last week, Murphy, a Democrat who’s up for reelection next year, proposed a $32.4 billion spending plan for what will now be a nine-month fiscal 2021.

To help maintain spending amid projected revenue losses stemming from the pandemic, Murphy is proposing about $1 billion in tax hikes. They include a higher income-tax rate on earnings over $1 million and up to $5 million, as well as increased levies on cigarettes, boat sales, and guns and ammunition. High-earning businesses would also be asked to pay more under Murphy’s budget.

Murphy is also asking lawmakers to approve $4 billion in borrowing to help sustain spending during the pandemic. The state Constitution generally prohibits such deficit spending, but it allows for exceptions, including to help the state respond to a war or major emergency.

Meanwhile, spending on public-employee pensions would increase by about $1 billion, and the allocation for K-12 “formula” aid and aid to municipalities would essentially be held flat even as revenues have been pummeled by the pandemic. Funding for popular property tax relief programs would also be restored, and Murphy is calling for the establishment of a “baby bonds” program to help generate savings for children born into lower-income families.

Murphy’s plan also calls for maintaining a $2.24 billion surplus through the end of June 2021.

For those seeking to comment on Murphy’s FY2021 budget proposals using email, written testimony can be sent to the OLS’ legislative budget and finance office using the address LBFO@njleg.org.

Feedback can also be mailed to members of the Assembly Budget Committee, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee; letters should be addressed to the Legislative Budget and Finance Office, Office of Legislative Services, P.O. Box 068, Trenton NJ, 08625-0068.