Senate president seeks to dilute governor’s power

Senate President Steve Sweeney thinks the state can do a better job of forecasting and certifying revenue. Under the constitution of 1947, the governor alone makes that annual certification. Sweeney wants to amend the constitution to create a three-person Revenue Certification Board.

The board would consist of the state treasurer, the Office of Legislative Services’ revenue and finance officer and a third person of their choosing.

“It’s a situation where we’ve had administrations, and I’m not blaming this administration, but there’s been previous administrations where they make the numbers work the way they want to make them work. We need to know what the numbers really are each year when we do our budgeting. It’s important to have a process that everyone buys into,” Sweeney said.

As the Senate Budget Committee heard testimony about the proposal Monday, it was hard to escape the idea there is a political component to Sweeney’s plan.

He and Gov. Phil Murphy just came through a very contentious budget process, and this constitutional amendment would dilute the governor’s authority going forward.

When asked if this was a slap at the power of the governor, Sweeney said, “No, not at all. In fact, if I’m the governor I would want this because you can’t argue the numbers if you have a consensus between the legislative body, an independent individual and the governor. Then you have a consensus built around real projections,” Sweeney said.

An expert from the Volcker Alliance, a good government group, backed Sweeney up. He gave a PowerPoint presentation on how other states forecast and certify revenue.

“Unlike 28 other states, by our count, New Jersey does not use a consensus of forecasts from the Governor’s Office, legislative leaders and outside experts to build an estimate of revenue to include in the general fund budget. Instead, the governor’s proposed budget includes the chief executive’s estimate of resources available for the upcoming fiscal year,” said William Glasgall, senior vice president of the Volcker Alliance.

The Governor’s Office issued a statement disagreeing with Sweeney.

“The Executive branch is best positioned to certify revenues because it has access to information, including tax data, that is unavailable to other entities,” it said, adding, “Governor Murphy … feels that it is unwise to disrupt the separation of powers that has existed in this area for over 70 years.”

Sweeney says OLS has good information too, and that legislators want to work with the governor.

“We’re partners. We’re partners. We want to continue to be partners and we think we should be part of the scoring process,” Sweeney said.

He insists it’s not about the rivalry between him and Murphy.

“This is not a shot at him. It’s a shot at, let’s modernize the way we predict our revenue forecast,” Sweeney said.

To get a constitutional amendment onto this year’s fall ballot, the Legislature must act within the next few weeks. Veteran activist Gordon MacInnes told the committee that’s too fast.

“In the end we disagree about the timing, not about the content, and the timing is important,” said MacInnes, who serves as president of New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“We just had a bad budget with numbers we don’t know were real or not real. And this is not, listen, there’s many budgets like that. We’ve been through it. It’s time to fix the process, Gordon,” Sweeney said.

Another state house long-timer applauded the move.

“No governor should yield to the temptation of inflating figures or conflating figures for political whim or some kind of agenda,” League of American Families Executive Director John Tomicki said.

The committee deferred action.

If you thought the power struggle between Sweeney and Murphy ended with the budget compromise, that doesn’t appear to be the case. This attempt to take away the governor’s power to certify revenue looks like only the latest manifestation.