Budget documents show conflicts for New Jersey lawmakers

By: - September 2, 2023 8:09 am

At least two legislators appear to have failed to properly disclose financial relationships when making their annual spending requests. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Budget documents released Friday for the annual spending bill passed two months ago show at least two legislators failed to properly disclose conflicts of interest.

Legislators submit budget resolutions to add or subtract funding from the spending proposal the governor unveils in February. The forms require legislators to disclose whether they or members of their family receive compensation from the organizations they are seeking to fund.

In at least two cases, legislators appear to have failed to properly disclose their conflicts.

Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson) did not disclose a conflict on a resolution steering $10 million to the Township of North Bergen, where Sacco is mayor and draws a $40,000 salary.

Sacco appears to have failed to properly disclose conflicts on a separate budget resolution sending $10 million to the North Bergen school district, which employs a number of his stepchildren. Sacco used to be a top school administrator in the district.

A spokesperson for Sacco denied that the lack of disclosure was intentional and said the lawmaker would work with Senate staffers to correct the resolution.

“It’s common knowledge that Senator Sacco also serves as mayor of North Bergen and any insinuation that he would deliberately try to hide that fact from anyone is not credible,” said Phil Swibinski, the spokesperson.

Sacco is retiring from the Senate in January.

Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic) appears to have failed to disclose his relationship with Egg Harbor Township on a resolution sending the municipality $250,000 for transportation improvements. Polistina is a planner for the township’s planning board.

Joe Berg, Polistina’s chief of staff, said the law allows legislators to advocate for municipalities where they hold public work and he denied a conflict.

“He recognizes there is some question about whether there was a technical oversight on a budget resolution. If it is confirmed it was an oversight, it was a simple mistake that will not happen again,” Berg said.

Gov. Phil Murphy signing the fiscal year 2024 budget on June 30, 2023. (Rich Hundley III/Governor’s Office)

Spending added by the budget resolutions accounts for $1 billion of the $54.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Legislators disclosed conflicts on just two of the 494 budget resolutions released Friday by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) noted a conflict on a resolution sending $12.5 million to the Wood-Ridge school district but said he would receive no compensation from that funding. Sarlo is mayor of Wood-Ridge.

Legislators noted a conflict on a separate resolution appropriating $3 million for Kids in Need of Defense, a charitable nonprofit that provides legal aid to unaccompanied minors. It’s unclear which of the 12 legislators who sponsored the resolution were conflicted.

When he was Senate president, Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex) implemented rules requiring legislators to note conflicts of interest on budget resolutions after Wayne Bryant, a former Senate budget chairman, was convicted of steering $13 million to a university where he held a no-show job.

Codey, on a 2023 resolution sending $1.5 million to Livingston for improvements to a sports complex, noted that while he would not receive compensation from the township, the township council had raised the possibility of naming the complex after him. Codey is retiring from the Senate in January.

Legislators must disclose their conflicts, but such disclosures are minimal and require only that they check a box on the resolution.

Legislative rules, which set terms for budget resolutions, do not outline any consequences for undisclosed conflicts, and it’s not clear whether a failure to disclose could draw a rebuke from the Joint Committee on Ethical Standards.

Cases that reach the joint panel are most often dismissed on technical grounds.

It’s also unclear whether legislators followed chamber rules in submitting the budget resolutions. A joint rule requires budget resolutions to be sent to the Office of Legislative Services 14 days before the final budget vote.

The only resolutions with dates were submitted by the Treasury, and it’s not clear whether any of the resolutions submitted by legislators were sent to the Office of Legislative Services on or before June 16.

Budget Committees in both chambers advanced the annual spending bill shortly before midnight on June 28, and they voted on a bill that contained multiple errors that were fixed through technical corrections before the final budget vote on June 30.

Democratic funding requests accounted for the overwhelming majority of those included in the budget. Just 14 of the 494 budget resolutions included in the spending bill were sponsored or co-sponsored by Republican members. Just five were sponsored only by Republican members.

Republicans in both chambers have criticized the spending added by budget resolutions and their delayed release. Senate Republicans released their members’ budget resolutions ahead of the budget vote in late June, and they accused Democrats of hiding the added spending by delaying the release of the documents.

“When there is complete transparency in members’ spending requests, it is less likely that abuses will occur or go unnoticed,” Senate Republicans said in a statement in July.

The disclosures, made the Friday before Labor Day weekend, do not include resolutions that were excluded from the spending bill, despite the fact that legislative rules require all budget resolutions — not just those that make it into the bill — to be disclosed to the public.


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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.