Nearly two weeks after budget passage, lawmakers’ spending requests still not public

By: - July 12, 2022 7:03 am

One GOP lawmaker claims the spending requests are being withheld from the public intentionally. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

Nearly two weeks after the Legislature approved a voluminous $50.6 billion budget, requests for additional spending submitted by individual lawmakers have not been publicly released.

The delayed release of the budget resolutions — a top Senate Democrat said they may be available for public review in the next few weeks — has been sharply criticized by at least one Republican lawmaker, who said the lack of transparency on spending requests is intentional.

“Nobody knows how they ended up being doled out,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), the chamber’s GOP budget officer. “Nobody knows who made the requests, and the intention is to prevent the public from knowing — certainly they already have — in time to have any input or do anything about it.”

Democrats who control the Legislature have already faced criticism for delivering the final spending plan two weeks ago just half an hour before legislative budget panels voted on it.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who chairs the Senate’s budget committee, said he does not know when the spending requests will be made public. Sarlo suggested legislative and staff vacations taken in early July have contributed to the delay. The Legislature went on a summer recess after its June 29 session.

“I think everybody just ran for the hills to get out there,” Sarlo said.

The Assembly also declined to provide a date or the release of budget resolutions, though they suggested that disclosure would come eventually.

“We will fulfill all legal and constitutional requirements to provide the public with the information it needs to understand what’s in the budget and how it addresses their needs and priorities,” said Cecilia Williams, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex)

Budget resolutions are requests for changes to the annual appropriations bill submitted by lawmakers, either individually or in groups, or by the state treasurer.

The sponsors of budget resolutions are required to disclose whether they or any members of their family have relationships or are paid by organizations they are seeking to fund, a requirement that supplements New Jersey’s lax financial disclosures for lawmakers.

The rules were enacted by Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex) after Wayne Bryant, a former Senate budget chair, was convicted of steering nearly $13 million to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where he held a no-show job.

When Codey announced the new rules more than a decade ago, he said they would require budget change proposals be released to the public 14 days before the final budget vote, but the rule text does not explicitly spell out such a requirement. In past sessions, legislative leaders have claimed the rule requires only that the resolutions be filed with budget committees in that time frame.

A spokesperson for Senate Democrats said no date has been set for the release of budget resolutions. Sarlo suggested the resolutions would hopefully be released in the coming weeks, adding that there is “a lot of reconciliation” between lawmakers and the Office of Legislative Services.

“The resolutions will be made public. There’s a commitment to make them public,” he said.

The Office of Legislative Services, the nonpartisan office that provides support services to the Legislature, received a deluge of work at the end of June. Lawmakers in the Senate on June 29 passed more bills than they had during the rest of the legislative session that began on Jan. 11. Eighty-one of the 216 bills passed by the Assembly this session were also approved that day.

When Gov. Phil Murphy first proposed the fiscal year 2023 budget in March, total spending was $48.6 billion. By the time the Legislature passed it, spending had increased by $1.7 billion.

Among the additional spending: two $20 million appropriations of federal funds to improvement authorities in Union and Middlesex Counties, areas represented by Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Coughlin. Coughlin’s law firm holds public contracts with the two agencies worth up to $650,000 total. The spending add-ons were first reported by NJ Spotlight News.

“The Speaker routinely confers with counsel for any potential ethical questions, and we are confident there are no conflicts in this year’s budget,” said Cecilia Williams, a spokesperson for the speaker.

Because budget resolutions have not been released, it’s not clear whether Scutari or Coughlin requested those appropriations. Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), chair of the chamber’s budget committee, did not return requests seeking comment.

“The town where entities that powerful Democrats work for shouldn’t get hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars simply because powerful Democrats work there. That’s dangerously close — in fact, you can argue it is over the line,” O’Scanlon said, speaking generally.

The $40 million to the two improvement authorities account for only a small slice of the nearly $1.8 billion in federal aid spending legislators approved in this year’s budget.

The priciest items on that list are $300 million for capital costs at Rutgers University and $300 million for unspecified water infrastructure expenses, followed by $170 million for lead paint remediation in homes.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.