Op-Ed: New Jersey’s budget process remains opaque and exclusionary

Brandon McKoy | September 23, 2020 | Opinion, Budget
The budget that is set to pass this week has a lot of positives. Unfortunately, the public and legislators of color were locked out of the process
Credit: NJPP
Brandon McKoy

Passing a state budget is the single most important thing lawmakers do every year. It represents the priorities and values of our government, and allocates the resources necessary to support the needs of all residents. As such, the budget should be viewed as a moral document, with its success measured by how well it advances economic prosperity, improves quality of life, and addresses existing inequities along the lines of race and gender that hold back so many of our friends and neighbors. When viewing the budget in this frame, the budget for fiscal year 2021 that is set to pass this week makes a lot of positive strides, but the process by which it has been produced continues to set us back in concerning fashion — especially with regard to the lack of public transparency.

Between the three-month spending bill passed in June and the nine-month budget under consideration now, there has been a distinct lack of opportunity for the public to engage lawmakers and let their voice be heard in full. If you’ve followed New Jersey’s budget drama in the past, you’d be excused for asking if this concern is all that new. Releasing and voting on budgets at the last minute is old hat at this point, but this year’s budget process found a way to be much worse — and with the stakes at an all-time high.

Shortchanging public engagement, transparency

By scheduling committee hearings late, publishing bills after the deadline to sign up for testimony, and limiting the opportunity to testify to in-person only — during an incredibly contagious viral pandemic — the Legislature has erected major barriers to public participation and violated basic democratic principles. The Senate ended opportunities to provide virtual testimony and ignored loud calls by dozens of organizations to restore them; committee hearings that would allow commissioners of various departments to testify were never scheduled (most notably for the Department of Children and Families); and basic documents that clearly explain changes made in the budget were never published. The budget is already an opaque and confusing document; operating an opaque and confusing process just adds insult to injury.

Some have justified this by pointing to the unique challenges presented by the pandemic, saying that open meetings just aren’t possible. But the fact of the matter is the process for public engagement was never clearly communicated, making it nearly impossible for advocates, social service providers, lobbyists, the press, and everyday residents to make their voices heard. For all intents and purposes, while the budget for the 2021 fiscal year will be long considered one of the most important and consequential in the state’s history, it will also go down as one of the most confusing and least understood. This is a shame for many reasons already mentioned, but also because this budget represents an important change in how the state addresses economic downturns, and it should be discussed more broadly.

Changing our approach to economic downturns

The last time New Jersey faced a daunting economic crisis in the Great Recession of 2007-2009, elected officials opted to implement a strategy of austerity by cutting taxes, spending, and long-term investments. The result was the slowest and weakest recovery in the nation, costing the state a decade of progress as investments in critical assets and programs took a major hit. Looking at the impact on the public, key metrics of household income and poverty rate essentially returned to pre-recession levels in just the past year. In many respects, the state still had yet to fully recover from the Great Recession when the twin crises of our current recession and the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Having to address these new challenges — which are arguably greater than those of the last recession — with fewer resources on hand thanks to a bare-bones rainy day fund, meant this latest budget was bound to be a challenging one. The decision to pass a three-month spending bill in June to buy more time for budget considerations proved to be beneficial in the long run as officials could collect more information to better understand the contours of the pandemic and what options were available to the state. Implementing the “millionaires tax” and other progressive taxes to raise new revenue is a wise choice that will ensure critical relief is delivered to workers, families, and businesses. While some are upset that the state will be borrowing greater funds to help it face these crises — up to $9.9 billion in total — doing so to prevent deep cuts to programs and services is as good a reason to do so as you’ll get; the costs of austerity, increased poverty, and worsening racial inequities would be far greater and more harmful in the long term.

The process upholds systemic discrimination

While this more proactive approach to budgeting is an important and positive change, the process by which this has all been accomplished still leaves much to be desired. Beyond the lack of opportunities for public engagement, there’s also a distinct lack of engagement with Black lawmakers and officials throughout. Not only has this been yet another process in which negotiations are held behind closed doors between the governor, Senate president, and speaker of the Assembly — all white men with nearly entirely white senior staff — but the review panel created to oversee proposed borrowing also doesn’t include any Black legislators whatsoever. And it’s not as if this is unknown, as Sens. Gill and Rice, along with Assemblyman Holley, made their protestations loud and clear on the floor when the bill creating the borrowing review panel was debated. For a state as diverse as New Jersey, with a significant Black population, the lack of opportunity for Black leaders to be crucial parts of the budget and borrowing process is a willful tragedy.

The basic point is that New Jersey’s state budget — the most important thing it does every year — is developed by a process that marginalizes the public at large and locks out leaders of color at crucial moments. While the governor and legislative leaders have made statements in support of the fight against systemic racism, all continue to fall short in their actions around the budget. A process that privileges the views and voices of white leaders and marginalizes those of Black leaders, by definition, upholds systemic racism, regardless of the intent of individual actors. As long as this continues, it is hard to expect the budget to be a vehicle that advances equity and justice, let alone secures the resources that will help all residents to thrive.