The ‘Christmas tree’ list: Senate says who got what in budget

So far, only the Senate has made public who sponsored last-minute budget additions. And those disclosures omit key info
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Lawmakers in the Senate have disclosed who sponsored dozens of appropriations inserted into a budget bill at the last minute as they rushed a new spending plan to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk last week.

The late additions included a request by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to tack $505 million onto the planned contribution into the state’s public-worker pension funds, according to a list released by the Senate Majority late last week. (See below for a full list of the Senate add-ons.)

But there were also dozens of other add-ons to a budget Murphy proposed months before, including some items as small as a request by Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) for $30,000 to cover indigent burials, according to the Senate’s list of add-ons.

However, still not disclosed by the Legislature is which members of the Assembly requested budget add-ons. Also unclear is whether any senators or members of the Assembly have disclosed any personal financial connections to any of the recipients of their added spending.

The formal budget resolutions that would include those details have yet to be posted on the Legislature’s website, even as the budget legislation itself is now sitting on Murphy’s desk awaiting final approval before a July 1 deadline.

READ: Spending boom rushed by lawmakers now in Murphy’s hands

WATCH: Senate and Assembly approve the budget along party lines

A time-honored tradition, historic spending

Adding spending as a new appropriations bill is drafted in Trenton is a time-honored tradition allowed under the Legislature’s constitutional authority to ensure the annual budget reflects lawmakers’ own priorities, and not just the governor’s.

However, the tradition also typically involves adding funding for legislative pet projects that are often referred to as “Christmas tree” items. This method allows lawmakers to fund projects directly, avoiding the state’s numerous funding formulas and competitive grant programs and moving handpicked projects to the front of the line, often with little to no public justification.

In all, more than $1.5 billion was added to Murphy’s original budget plan this year as the annual appropriations bill came together in a flurry of legislative activity last week. The additions helped push total spending to a historic high of $46.4 billion.

This year’s spending add-ons were drafted just weeks after lawmakers found out that overall tax revenues were expected to soar beyond expectations by $5.2 billion through the end of the 2022 fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

Tax windfall, Homestead tax relief

That provided lawmakers with more than enough resources to make a number of changes to Murphy’s spending plan, some seemingly in response to testimony or concerns that were aired during public budget hearings held earlier this year.

They included $200,000 that Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) sought for a mentoring program run by the Bergen Volunteers organization. Nina Bachrach, the group’s chief executive officer, had personally pleaded for help from lawmakers during a budget hearing in March.

Another nearly $80 million was added to the budget at the request of Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego (D-Burlington) so the Legislature could halt the state’s long-standing practice of using outdated property-tax bills as the baseline for calculating state-funded Homestead property-tax relief benefits.

That practice — which lawmakers had identified as a key concern in April during other budget committee hearings — has eroded the effectiveness of the Homestead program as New Jersey’s average property-tax bills have risen by more than 40% over the past 15 years.

Public-worker pensions

Meanwhile, Sweeney’s addition for pension funding was by far the largest item on the Senate’s list. New Jersey has one of the nation’s worst-funded public-worker pension systems, and Sweeney has long advocated for increased funding and other policy changes to restore the pension funds to good health. Sweeney also sponsored a request to increase state funding by $100 million for extraordinary special education, which was another subject of testimony in this year’s budget hearings.

But the list of last-minute appropriations released by the Senate late last week also indicates who sponsored a number of other, more modest budget add-ons, such as a request by Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) to secure $350,000 in funding for a returfing project at Myrtle-Charles Park in Metuchen.

It’s unclear from the documents released by the Senate what the justification is for funding that project. While it’s located in Diegnan’s legislative district, it will be paid for by taxpayers throughout the state.

Assembly’s list not made public, other questions

Also still not clear is why some funding requests didn’t make it into the final budget legislation, such as Weinberg’s request to increase the appropriation for New Jersey Transit to reverse planned diversions from the agency’s capital resources and from the state’s Clean Energy Fund.

During an interview last week with NJ Spotlight News’ David Cruz, Weinberg, a longtime advocate for mass-transit riders, said she was “shocked” that NJ Transit didn’t get more funding in the final budget legislation.

And while the 40-member Senate has released its list of budget add-ons and their respective sponsors, no such list has been released by the 80-member Assembly or Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex). Reached on Monday for comment, Coughlin’s office did not immediately explain why the Assembly’s list of add-ons has not been made public, or when that may occur.  

Also unclear is when the formal budget resolutions for the fiscal year 2022 spending plan, which include the sponsors’ personal disclosures, will be made public. The budget-resolution process was established among a series of ethics reforms adopted in the wake of the public corruption scandal that engulfed the budget process in the mid-2000s.

This year, all 120 legislative seats are on the November ballot, as is Murphy. And Democrats currently hold wide majorities in both houses.

Republicans call for more budget transparency

Republicans last week repeatedly accused their Democratic counterparts of weakening transparency standards, and many special-interest groups and activists have also called for a more open budget process in response to last week’s speedy approval of the 281-page budget legislation.

The full text of the spending bill for the 2022 fiscal year was posted online last Tuesday, just moments before members of budget committees in both the Assembly and Senate offered the public a final chance to comment before holding votes that sent the budget to both full houses for final consideration. Those final votes came on Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours later.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has the power to remove individual line items from the Legislature’s spending bill. But he is not expected to do so.

READ: In spending rush, lawmakers find time and money for pet projects

WATCH: Sen. Weinberg on NJ’s budget and funding for NJ Transit: Chat Box

READ: Murphy plans to continue time-honored NJ tradition: Shortchanging recipients of Homestead tax relief

—  Colleen O’Dea contributed to this story.

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