Who asked for hundreds of millions in spending add-ons? Lawmakers so far aren’t saying

Legislative rules require lawmakers to disclose budget requests and once again they are not immediately making them public
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/ Governor’s Office)
Sept. 29, 2020: Senate President Steve Sweeney, left, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin applauded as Gov. Phil Murphy signed the budget at the Trenton War Memorial.

Lawmakers acted swiftly last month to pass a state budget that was packed with dozens of last-minute spending additions. Now weeks later, they’ve yet to make public any of the written “budget resolutions” required for each eleventh-hour revision.

Legislative rules for both the Assembly and Senate make it clear that lawmakers must draft budget resolutions to justify each change they want to make to the annual appropriations bill.

The legislative rules also say the budget resolutions “shall be made available to the public” through the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. And they are generally supposed to be submitted by their sponsors at least two weeks before final votes on the budget legislation are held in either house.

This year, the Legislature’s final votes on the budget occurred in each house on Sept. 24, and lawmakers were encouraged to turn in their budget resolutions by Sept. 8.

But the budget resolutions for the fiscal year 2021 spending plan that Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law by late last month have yet to be posted on the OLS website or disseminated to the public in another way.

Criticism of ‘pet projects’

So it remains unclear which lawmakers sought specific changes to Murphy’s original budget request, or how they justified inserting new spending items into the budget bill that added up to more than $400 million. Some of that last-minute spending has since drawn heavy criticism for funding lawmakers’ apparent pet projects while the state is suffering severe revenue losses due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

NJ Spotlight News emailed questions about the budget resolutions and the issue of transparency to spokesmen for Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), whose offices coordinate the drafting of the budget bill each year.

The legislative leaders did not respond; instead a joint statement was issued by the executive directors for the Senate and Assembly majority offices. Their statement pointed to a budget-approval process that was truncated due to the pandemic, leaving only weeks between the release of Murphy’s budget requests and the deadline for drafting and approving a final spending bill.

“The most important document in the appropriations process is the budget document itself, and the Legislature plays a key role. The Senate President and the Assembly Speaker firmly believe in open government and transparency,” said the joint statement from Kevin Drennan, executive director of the Senate Majority Office, and Anthony “Skip” Cimino, executive director of the Assembly Majority Office.

“The Legislature’s process of adopting resolutions into the budget includes ethical safeguards, but it is ultimately about enabling all legislators to offer their voice on behalf of the people they represent,” the statement continued.

‘Christmas tree’ items

The rules that require the drafting and public dissemination of budget resolutions were adopted more than a decade ago as part of a broader package of ethics reforms in response to a public-corruption scandal involving what are often referred to as legislative “Christmas-tree” items.

The scandal rocked the State House, and two members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee were ultimately sent to prison after being accused by federal prosecutors of using their positions to steer state funding to their employers via the last-minute spending additions.

Under the reforms, adopted in 2007, legislative rules for both houses of the Legislature now call for individual lawmakers to clearly identify themselves via the formal budget resolutions as the sponsor of any proposal seeking to “add, delete or otherwise change revenues, line-items or language provisions in the Governor’s budget recommendations.”

The rules also say the budget resolutions should include a statement from each sponsor “explaining the proposed changes and the reasons therefor.” Lawmakers are also required to disclose in their budget resolutions whether they, their spouse, or any other close family member has “any employment relationship or business relationship with, or receive any compensation from, the intended recipient of any increased funding proposed in a budget resolution.”

While the rules don’t say specifically when the budget resolutions must be made public, they do indicate they should be submitted to the respective budget committee chairs in each house “at least 14 calendar days before the House shall pass an annual appropriations bill.” The rules do allow for exceptions to be made, and they do not list any specific penalties for noncompliance.

To be sure, adding new spending to the state budget in the final days before it wins approval from lawmakers and is sent to the governor’s desk remains a time-honored tradition in Trenton. And since the state Constitution gives lawmakers the authority to draft the annual spending bill, it provides a direct way for them to ensure their own priorities receive attention, and not just the governor’s.

Last-minute additions during pandemic

But this year, the practice drew heavy criticism as the budget bill was debated inside the State House since the last-minute spending was added amid a devastating health crisis that has brought cuts to property-tax relief programs and put on hold other budget priorities, such as ongoing efforts to increase education funding. Several new tax hikes — and borrowing without voter approval — were also passed with majority-Democrat backing late last month to help offset the pandemic-triggered revenue losses.

Some of this year’s last-minute budget additions directed more funding to services and programs that are being leaned on heavily during the pandemic, drawing praise from advocates across the state. Drennan and Cimino highlighted those items and other legislative spending priorities in the statement issued to NJ Spotlight News.

“If not for the Legislature, there would have been less money for survivors of child abuse, for children seeking mental health services through their schools, for the impoverished in need of primary health care, and for crucial job skills training, among other priorities,” they wrote.

But other last-minute spending items appeared to have no connection at all to the pandemic, instead earmarking funds for what were widely considered to be lawmakers’ pet projects.

Among those items, NJ Spotlight News reported last month, were $100,000 for shade tree management in Metuchen; $400,000 for municipal facility renovations in East Brunswick; $250,000 for the dredging of a reservoir in Clark; $150,000 for the Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Tower and Museum in Edison; and $1 million for the Hinchliffe Stadium neighborhood restoration project in Paterson.

A letter obtained by NJ Spotlight News last month indicated Sweeney and Coughlin wanted all budget resolutions for the 2021 fiscal year’s spending bill to be submitted to the respective budget committee chairs in each house “no later than Tuesday, September 8, 2020.”

“As a reminder, each budget resolution must address a separate and specific budget item,” Sweeney and Coughlin wrote in the letter, which was sent to their Republican counterparts in the Senate and Assembly in late August.

This isn’t the first time that lawmakers have dragged their feet when it comes to publicizing the budget resolutions.

Credit: (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)
Aug. 25, 2020: Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), attended Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget address at SHI Stadium in Piscataway. Codey was a driving force behind the legislative ethics reforms of 2007.

Just last year, the budget resolutions for the 2020 fiscal year spending bill were not posted to the OLS website until January 2020, even though the final version of the spending bill cleared both houses of the Legislature on June 20, 2019. The public release of the budget resolutions last year came only after NJ Spotlight submitted formal requests for copies of them.

Past ethics reforms

Former Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) was a driving force behind the ethics reforms. In a news release issued at the time, he called them “long-term government reforms.” The news release also promised “all proposed changes to the budget, as well as the author of each change, will be published at least 14 days prior to consideration of the appropriations bill by the Senate.”

“Adoption of the annual appropriations act is the Legislature’s single most important responsibility,” Codey said at the time. “It is essential that the public have confidence in our decision making. Subjecting budget revisions to more public disclosure will move us in that direction.”

Codey, who remains in office but no longer holds a leadership position in the Senate, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the handling of this year’s budget resolutions.

— Colleen O’Dea contributed to this story.