Budget Process Questioned After Shutdown
Quick: What came first, dawn on Saturday, July 8 or passage of New Jersey's new budget?
The sun rose at 4:37 a.m. and had been up for an hour before the Assembly approved a $30.9 billion budget at 5:37 a.m. Lawmakers and Statehouse staff pulled an all-nighter to put the final touches on the spending plan, signaling an end to an eight-day government shutdown that suspended casino gambling, closed state parks and idled more than 100,000 workers.
Did shutting down government and burning the midnight oil produce a better budget? Or did fatigue and pressure force concessions or promote gratuitous spending that would have been kept in check at an earlier hour?
"It was the worst I've seen and the worst in New Jersey history," Senate Republican leader Leonard Lance said of this year's budget process.
Although Lance is a Republican and it was a Democratic Legislature that passed the budget, the Hunterdon County lawmaker has built a reputation for no-nonsense budgeting over 15 years in office. By his estimate, this year's process was "a complete fiasco."
Lance complained that last-minute wrangling kept government services shut while Democrats jammed in funding for pet projects. Despite raising the sales tax to balance the budget, the party in power bloated the total by about $280 million in last-minute add-ons.
"And there was no vetting of the items," he said. "This was done literally in the dead of night."
Veteran lobbyist Jeff Tittel, who represents the Sierra Club, also recognizes the perils of late-night budgeting.
"Any time you pass a budget in the middle of the night when people are exhausted is a dangerous time," said Tittel. "It becomes more about getting it over with than any real policy or substance. Anything can happen."
This is not the first time New Jersey lawmakers missed the July 1 deadline specified by the Constitution to adopt a balanced budget, but it was the longest the state has ever gone without a budget in place and the first time the state government ever shut down.
In recent years, it's become common for New Jersey's budget to be adopted in the middle of the night. According to the Office of Legislative Services, the Assembly has approved the budget after midnight in four of the past five years, and the budget vote was taken after the deadline date in four of those years. Twice in the past five years, the Senate stopped the clock at 11:59 p.m. on June 30 to continue the budget debate "under the deadline."
"I am sure that it is far from ideal to move as quickly as we did ultimately in those last 24 to 36 hours, for everyone," said state Treasurer Bradley Abelow, who followed Gov. Jon S. Corzine from Goldman Sachs into New Jersey government. "That said, I'm not sure how it ever happens without the pressure of a deadline."
Abelow said key players in this year's budget talks compressed three weeks worth of work into two marathon overnight negotiation sessions during which the governor grabbed catnaps on a cot he had delivered to his Statehouse office. With the state sacrificing millions in tax revenue every day the government remained shuttered, there was added pressure to adopt a budget.
Lawmakers on the Assembly and Senate budget committees ultimately worked from budget summary sheets, and voted on a budget document they hadn't actually seen. By the time the budget bills made it to the floor of the Senate and Assembly, lawmakers could view the actual finished document, but not in time to digest its dense contents.
"Did it get the consideration that it deserves? Probably not," said Abelow.
Sen. Stephen Sweeney, who is on the Senate budget panel, said unintended outcomes result from a rushed budget.
The South Jersey Democrat said he would not have voted for the budget if he'd realized that language in the bill allows the governor to pay state workers for time not worked during the shutdown without airing the plan to the Legislature.
"It's very hard to get a budget bill that late and really know everything that's in it," said Sweeney. "I would have loved to have had more time to go through a budget bill as thick as the phone book before making some decisions."
Corzine, who stripped $51 million in add-ons before signing the budget 12 hours after getting it from the Legislature, also said the process is flawed.
"How we budget shouldn't be jammed into a rush to the finish line," Corzine said two days after signing the document. "It should be something that is vetted, studied, trade-offs acknowledged, and then have the public be a participant in the process."
Lawmakers have proposed several alternatives to avoid a late budget approval process in the future such as moving up the start of negotiations or requiring talks to continue daily as the deadline approaches.
The New Jersey Constitution requires a balanced budget to be in place by 12:01 a.m. on July 1, when a new fiscal year starts. In four of the past five years, however, lawmakers missed the deadline, leaving the state without the authority to spend money. And in two of those years, the Senate stopped the official clock so the budget debate could continue "under the deadline."
Here are the dates and times the Legislature has approved each of the past five budget bills, which sends them to the governor for a signature:
- 2002: Senate 10:34 p.m. June 30; Assembly 1:31 a.m. July 1.
- 2003: Senate 11:59 p.m. June 30; Assembly 1:24 p.m. July 1.
- 2004: Senate 1:55 a.m. June 25; Assembly 2:12 a.m. June 25.
- 2005: Senate 11:59 p.m. June 30; Assembly 3:29 a.m. July 2.
- 2006: Senate 4:17 a.m. July 8; Assembly 5:37 a.m. July 8.