Column: Trenton Chaos the Norm This Time of Year
Backroom deals and uninformed voting continue to rule in June.
The end of June is the worst time in Trenton.
It is rivaled only by the end of a legislative session in January, though the shenanigans that happen in the lame duck session generally don’t involve the spending of billions of the people’s tax dollars.
The games that began last week in the State House, and will continue this week, are textbook displays of political partisanship, backroom deals and poor public policy making, not to mention a disregard for people.
Take, for instance, last Monday’s Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing. The committee set a start time of 9:30 a.m. and the room was packed as there were 21 bills on the agenda. Some of those bills were very controversial, and others in various stages of un-readiness: three had been added that morning, two were still pending referral and a third was awaiting introduction. Not all deals had been sealed, so the hearing did not even begin until 12:30 p.m., three hours later.
The committee took care of some business, then recessed around 4 p.m. to … seal more deals. The Democrats caucused for about two hours and when they came out, they immediately went to work.
Not hardly. They went into a back room to eat.
At about 6:30 p.m., they did get back to work, having gotten the votes they needed for the controversial higher education restructuring and merger bill, despite still having no idea what the plan would cost.
After approving that bill, they flew through a number of other measures that would normally have taken many hours—as well they should have, given the amount of money they want to spend.
There was a $750 million bond question to fund construction projects at the state’s colleges—public and private. And there was a bill extending the Transportation Trust Fund through 2016, the total fiscal impact of which was estimated by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services to be $6.7 billion. But most people had left and everyone who remained was itching to get out.
Last Thursday, that same committee had to vote on a $31.7 billion budget for New Jersey for the coming fiscal year. It had received the bill only an hour earlier, according to Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) and a member of the committee.
Bucco and the Republicans, naturally, objected to the Democrats’ delay of the tax cut that Gov. Chris Christie has been craving.
The Democrats countered that the tax cut will come if the money is available, which certainly seems to be sound policy. And they have real doubts about the money being available, since the OLS projects the treasury department overstated its revenue estimates by $1.4 billion.
The problem, though, is that after loudly criticizing Christie’s wildly optimistic revenue numbers, the Democrats used those same estimates in their own budget.
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the committee, said only the governor certifies revenue numbers.
That doesn’t mean the Democrats had to commit to spend all the money Christie says the state will have if they think he’s wrong.
After shifting some allocations to account for their own priorities, the Democrats say their budget spends $62 million less than the governor’s and includes $183 million more in surplus.
That’s great, but what about the other $1.1 billion-plus in revenues they’ve been crying for months the state won’t have to spend in the year that begins July 1?
One of the items added to the budget was a comparatively tiny expenditure of $69,000 for the Henry J. Raimondo New Jersey Legislative Fellows Program. Among the purposes of that program, according to the law creating it, is to “foster awareness and appreciation in younger citizens of this State of how laws are created, and encourage these students to be involved with State government throughout their careers.”
Not if they see what really happens in Trenton in June, it won’t.