NJ Dems just passed state budget for election year, but it doesn’t buy happiness


Democrats who control the New Jersey government were blessed with a gift for the election year this summer: billions in surprise tax revenues pouring in and helping them fund a scarce and record-breaking state budget, filled with cash.

A little over four months before the two govt. Phil murphy and all 120 seats in the Democratic-controlled state legislature are on the ballot, the windfall has allowed the Main Democrats to craft a $ 46.4 billion spending plan that includes tax breaks broadcasts, a historic $ 6.9 billion payment to the state civil servants’ pension fund, and new initiatives to help families save and pay for college.

This comes in addition to a deal Murphy and legislative leaders have already forged to send $ 500 tax breaks to hundreds of thousands of New Jersey families as the election campaign is in full swing.

And this call comes after 16 months of relentless pessimism thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, as the budget adopted partisan lines, the Main Democrats appeared to not only be partying, but also campaigning.

“This budget represents an important statement for all residents of New Jersey: we are prepared and ready to bounce back from the pandemic,” said the president of the state Senate. Stephen sweeney, D-Gloucester.

State Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald D-Camden said “there’s a reason we’re the majority party.”

“The policies we fought for reflect the majority of the state of New Jersey,” Greenwald said. “This budget is a reflection of what we hold to be true. “

Of course, this is Jersey, where politics and controversy are constant companions. Seems like all that money didn’t buy universal happiness.

Republicans, who are trying to win back the governorship and win seats in a legislature they haven’t controlled for two decades, have taken a dim view of the budget. They said there was 15% more spending, but that doesn’t do enough to solve the state’s financial problems and should have included more tax breaks for state residents with the lowest property taxes. highest in the country.

A GOP lawmaker called the budget a “pig orgy”.

At the same time, progressive advocates were so upset that they staged a protest at the Statehouse hours before the budget vote. They say the record-breaking spending plan neglects undocumented immigrants, some workers and NJ Transit riders despite a $ 10.1 billion surplus thanks to windfall tax revenues. Earlier this week, Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, angry Senate Majority Leader, said it was “absolutely mind-boggling” that the budget did not include more funding for NJ Transit.

Brandon McKoy, chairman of the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, told a rally Thursday that if the state is to “live up to its stated values, we can’t just go on and on. “.

“We’re no longer interested in lip service,” McKoy said. “We are interested in the action.”

And he found Republicans and Progressives to become unusual bedfellows in their shared dismay at how quickly the 281-page budget moved forward this week, from the introduction to the final passage in about 48 hours. Murphy is expected to sign the bill early next week.

Budgets with so much income aren’t common in New Jersey, where debts are high and executives often misappropriate funds to balance expenses and income. And Democrats aren’t used to fiscal harmony, as Murphy and more moderate leaders in the legislature pushed the state to the brink of closure in the first two years of the governor’s tenure.

Last year, Murphy and lawmakers warned of gaping budget holes in the wake of COVID-19 and borrowed $ 4 billion to cover expected deficits. But now the state is forecasting an unexpected influx of $ 5.2 billion in tax revenue that has allowed Democratic leaders to increase spending and put a debt repayment plan in place.

That includes an additional $ 505 million for the long-struggling New Jersey Public Workers’ Pension Fund, which will now receive a record $ 6.9 billion next year. Government workers form a large voting bloc, with more than 800,000 state and local workers active and retired in the pension system.

The budget also benefits a wide range of lower and middle class families by reducing taxes on retirement distributions, expanding a popular property tax relief program, and creating new tax deductions for college savings. , tuition fees and loan payments for households with income up to $ 200,000.

And early next month, the state will begin sending tax refund checks up to $ 500 to married couples jointly filing with less than $ 150,000 in income in 2020 and at least one dependent child and filers. single with an income of less than $ 75,000 and at least one dependent child.

“This budget provides Democrats with a strong narrative to present to voters on how they implemented things that matter to voters and what they promised the last time they went to the polls,” Ben said. Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy. and Citizenship.

AFTER: Here’s what NJ’s $ 46.4 billion budget could mean for you and your wallet

Lawmakers have played down the fact that this is an election year budget on steroids thanks to the tax windfall.

“It’s always better to have more than less,” Sweeney told NJ Advance Media. “It’s good that we are able to fund some programs that are important to us. We didn’t expect that. We were preparing for bad things. I think everyone should be happy that the economy is doing better. “

But the budget fight produced sharp words.

State Senator Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, said with more than $ 500 million for lawmakers’ favorite projects, the spending plan represents “an orgy of hog and unnecessary spending and leaves our taxpayers to mop up. the ground while being asked to pay for it. “

“Don’t listen to his bullshit,” Senator Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, told reporters as Testa spoke.

“There is no pork in a budget,” Sarlo said later. “These are expense items. I don’t think there is any unnecessary expense, as all expenses are for intended use. “

Critics also pointed to the speed reduction at the end of the budget process, with the final bill having been approved by legislative committees just 11 minutes after its presentation on Tuesday. Republicans and progressives have argued that taxpayers and even lawmakers have little time to understand what is in the revised spending plan.

“Some people have been quoted in the newspapers as saying this year has not been worse than previous years,” State Senator Samuel Thompson, R-Middlesex said. “I would respectfully disagree but strongly disagree. I think this year, in the last few weeks in particular, we have jumped the shark. “

Sarlo argued that the majority of the budget has been available since Murphy presented his plans in a February speech, which was followed by numerous public hearings. He said changes to the budget last week are contained in a 14-page tally sheet.

“I know you think there is this conspiracy theory,” Sarlo said. “There’s no.”

Top Democrats have insisted they are willing to change the process to allow more time between when the budget and other bills are introduced and when they are voted on. But the leaders did not commit to specific changes.

Some have argued that budgets have moved much faster – and with less time before the deadline – in the past.

“I was here when we concluded the budget negotiations at 8 am and voted the next morning,” said the President of the National Assembly. Craig coughlin, D-Middlesex, said. “Let’s talk about what’s really in this budget: This budget has a lot of good things for the state of New Jersey. “

Murphy – a progressive running for a second term – said Wednesday that New Jersey had a “good” budget process compared to other states, with months between his speech and the final vote to negotiate and hold public hearings. But he also said he remained “open” to transparency reforms.

Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican defying Murphy in the November election, suggested a “week-long window” for the budget to be available before a committee hearing.

But Sweeney, the Speaker of the Senate, noted that this could affect the June 30 deadline for the state budget to become law.

“What do we do on June 30 if the bill is not done?” We shut down the state government because of a rule we are making that has to wait three days to be signed? He asked reporters. “I am ready to support something that gives more time, but it will never be enough. If we give you a week, you’re going to criticize us.

Ultimately, Dworkin said, the fight for transparency in the budget process is not what will win in the November election.

“I think the process is difficult to defend,” Dworkin said. “But in an ever-changing world, I’m not sure voters care about the process when they vote. They care about their most immediate priorities.

NJ Advance Media Staff Editors Susan K. Livio, Samantha marcus, and Sophie Nieto-Munoz contributed to this report.

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Brent Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

Matt Arco can be reached at [email protected].

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