State lawmakers have scheduled a series of virtual public hearings starting next week to give residents a chance to sound off on the nearly $45 billion spending plan rolled out by Gov. Phil Murphy last week.
The public hearings are usually a matter of routine when a state budget is proposed by the governor, but they were disrupted last year after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and lawmakers faced criticism after they held no hearings and accepted only written comments from the public.
This time around, the leaders of the respective budget committees in both houses have scheduled a full slate of hearings where residents will be offered a chance to testify, albeit in a virtual format due to lingering concerns about spreading infections.
The Assembly’s virtual public hearings are set for March 10 and March 22, and the Senate’s, March 16 and March 23. All four sessions are scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. and can be viewed online at the Legislature’s website.
In the past, hearing testimony has sometimes been influential with lawmakers, who ultimately have the responsibility of drafting the state’s annual appropriations act.
In recent years, legislators have added funding to line items for things like K-12 school aid, New Jersey Transit and programs that combat the opioid epidemic in the wake of compelling public testimony. Proposed tax hikes have also been tweaked and even scrapped after facing criticism from residents.
“This is our opportunity as legislators to gain insight into the state’s economy and residents’ concerns as we discuss and determine the state’s budget for the next fiscal year,” Assembly Budget Committee Chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) said yesterday in announcing this year’s public hearings.
“The public’s input is important,” said Paul Sarlo, the Bergen Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
Spending up by 10%
Murphy, a first-term Democrat who faces reelection this November, has proposed no new taxes in the fiscal year 2022 spending plan he detailed in a budget address aired online last week.
But Murphy is calling for an increase in year-over-year spending of more than 10%, thanks to an improving fiscal outlook bolstered by federal coronavirus aid, better-than-expected tax collections and emergency borrowing that raised more than $4 billion for the COVID-19 response last year.
Murphy is also proposing to spend down a good portion of the state’s budget reserves in just one fiscal year, with increases for K-12 education, small businesses and offshore wind production, among other key areas.
If lawmakers agree with Murphy, the state would also make its first full public-worker pension contribution in more than two decades, and more than 750,000 New Jersey families would be in line to receive direct payments worth up to $500 later this year.
But according to budget documents, funding for some of the state’s most popular property-tax relief programs would be held flat — or even go down.
While Murphy has the constitutional authority to propose the state’s annual budget, it’s lawmakers who have the sole power to draft the annual appropriations bill, meaning much can change.
The remote, virtual hearings are the start to a lengthy review process that culminates in June with the introduction of the Legislature’s spending bill, which can mirror the governor’s proposals or incorporate major revisions. The adoption of an appropriations act must take place before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year or state government shuts down.
COVID-19 brought other changes
Last year, Murphy and fellow Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature decided to break up the state’s traditional fiscal year in response to the pandemic and unexpected revenue losses it triggered. They first enacted a stopgap, three-month spending bill in late June, and then followed up in September with a nine-month budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2021.
Only written testimony was collected before the nine-month budget was signed into law, a decision legislative leaders justified over concerns about public health. But a wide range of groups criticized the lack of transparency, with some holding a virtual public hearing of their own to scrutinize Murphy’s budget plans and highlight their concerns.
This year, it will be lawmakers who host the virtual hearings, but using rules that are generally enforced for their in-person events. Those rules include limiting testimony to no more than three minutes per person and requiring those seeking to testify to pre-register with the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
Anyone wanting to weigh in can pre-register for one of the four virtual hearings at the legislative website.