At budget hearing, lawmakers talk policy more than numbers

This was Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s first appearance before the Senate Budget Committee, so he would have to be excused for his punctuality, given the committee’s casual relationship with the clock.

Chairman Paul Sarlo’s committee is tasked with boring down on the numbers included in the governor’s $37 billion budget but, given that the Attorney General was whisked into office on the first day of the new administration, members seemed intent on picking his brain, concentrating on policy more than numbers.

“The Department of Law and Public Safety touches the lives of New Jersey residents in numerous ways,” began Grewal. “We obviously serve as the state’s lawyers; we investigate and prosecute crimes; we assist the victims of crimes and their families. We regulate a variety of industries important to New Jersey’s economy, including gaming, boxing, horse racing, and the distribution and sale of alcohol.”

It’s a full plate that includes State Police and more, but Grewal promised an activist attorney general, something he’s already shown by joining the fight against the president’s policies on immigration, climate, guns and more. The Attorney General’s Office is proposing a budget of over half a billion dollars, but the cost of litigation is unpredictable, and of concern to some Republicans.

“My question to you is what is the cost going to be on this? Do we have any idea?” asked Sen. Anthony Bucco.

“Unfortunately, I anticipate that there’s going to be more, but that’s my job. That’s my role is to be the chief law enforcement officer for this state and to stand up for the rights of all New Jerseyans,” Grewal replied.

On the potential legalization of marijuana, senators were curious about how the program would work within the law enforcement community.

“If some form of recreational marijuana was to become law, from your perspective, the law enforcement side, is that going to be one of the biggest challenges?” asked Sarlo.

Grewal responded, “With respect to marijuana, it will be a challenge, but we are working, depending on what the Legislature and the governor decide in this area, we are working tirelessly to be prepared. It’s going to require us to be prepared in a number of areas.”

Including training officers as DREs, Drug Recognition Experts, to better identify those under the influence, retraining drug dogs, establishing a drug-testing regime, including field tests, and developing education programs. And, no talk about how the administration reached the $60 million number anticipated from marijuana taxes.

“One of the issues I want to ask is about the whole issue of diversity on police forces and inclusion,” asked Sen. Linda Greenstein. “I’d like to know what efforts do the State Police take to engage in community policing, the State Police. Is it a detriment to community policing efforts that state police officers don’t have, perhaps, the same community ties as local police officers?”

Grewal, the first Sikh-American attorney general in the state’s history, said he’s working on that.

“We’re working together on those issues, whether it’s the recruit classes that are coming in, which are 40 percent diverse right now, the current class,” he noted. “The State Police is over 20 percent diverse as we speak. We’re getting there; we have more work to do, but that’s an improvement from where we were.”

The budget process is still in its early stages and there may yet be tough decisions to be made, but the attorney general’s appearance today suggests that those battles will likely be fought elsewhere.