Beset by crisis compunded by crisis, a global pandemic, the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, a federal government hostile to a blue state and a longstanding state financial beat-down, the New Jersey General Assembly along party lines (51-28-0) this afternoon passed emergency legislation authorizing $5 billion in state bonds, one of the largest debt issues in New Jersey history.
“I believe history will remember our actions today,” said Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6), second in command of a party numbering 52 members, who unsuccessfully asked his 28 GOP colleagues to join with the majority party driving the N.J. COVID-19 Emergency Bond Act on the invitation
of Governor Phil Murphy.
“A huge step forward,” said the governor at his daily War Memorial briefing, who cited no certainty at all on federal cash assistance, which is why New Jersey needs the bonding. “We have no plans to raise property taxes. …If we didn’t do the bonding that’s how property taxes would rise, becasue folks would have no other choice to offset the cuts that would come their way. The chorus of voices, they have voted for the exact same language… on many occasions over the years (see below). So enough already. Let’s not go down the fake news front.” Murphy made a point of giving a shout-out to Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19).
Irritated by a lack of transparency and the dangers of power concentration in the executive office, however, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) said the Democrats’ plan makes Governor Jim Florio’s and Governor Jon Corzine’s plans “look like they were fiscal conservatives.”
NJGOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt, Senator Steve Oroho and Bramnick planned a press conference announcing their plan to file a lawsuit against the act.
“There was one hearing and that is not enough,” Bramnick said. “On behalf of the minority party, we will
be voting no.”
“I can’t support this bill because we’re just putting more pressure on taxpayers,” said Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-23), who questioned the constitutionality of the act.
Murphy and his allies have routinely argued that the state constitution’s “otherwise strict limits on spending and borrowing… be relaxed during times of war or natural disaster,” according to this NJ Spotlight story by John Reitmeyer.
Numerous Republicans spoke out in opposition to the bill.
“Today is a very dark day,” said Assemblyman Kevin Rooney (R-40). “New Jersey was known as the crossroads of [the Revolution].”
He proceeded to go through a recitation of historic events.
“Can we get to it?” an impatient Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) demanded.
“New Jersey’s debt per capita is the fourth highest in the country,” said Assemblyman Rooney, who wants to reduce taxes. “Unless we do something about our annual massive deficit… our children and grandchildren will [suffer the burden].
Per Reitmeyer: “Treasury’s most recent official accounting of the total amount owed to bondholders was $44.4 billion, which is more than the state’s annual budget of just under $40 billion. Also on the state’s books is an unfunded public-worker pension liability that measures more than $100 billion by some estimates.”
“This bill should be held until we get the final numbers from the administration,” Minority Leader Bramnick reiterated. [A full statement on the act by Coughlin, for the record, can be found here].
The Democrats’ political arm simultaneously cried foul, noting that state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-21) and
Bramnick were primary sponsors of the “Building Our Future Bond Act” of 2012, which authorized $750 million in general obligation bonds to finance higher education capital projects. The bill included precisely the same language that Governor Murphy’s plan includes now, which deals with the state being unable to meet its bond obligations, an extraordinarily remote possibility.
“Throughout this crisis too many Trenton politicians have put politics ahead of peoples’ lives and livelihoods, but this might be the most egregious example of it yet,” said Saily Avelenda, New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC) Executive Director. “It’s astounding to see Kean and Bramnick conveniently forget their own support for bonding when it’s essential public workers we are now trying to protect.”
Democrats fought back on the floor.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), a veteran member of the Assembly Budget Committee and former Budget Committee chairman, noted that 685,000 New Jerseyands are looking for work, the vast majority without savings and within a consumer based economy [in crisis]. He urged his colleagues to put aside a philosophical debate to practically address a real-time catastrophe. Home to 1.8 million unemployed residents, New Jersey suffers a $10 billion deficit, and hospitals and schools in dire straits and dependent on government funds.
He invoked the national political climate and this state’s unique consequent challenge – “A federal government led by President Trump that suggests that some states, red states, should get more, and blue states should get less. It is time for the Republican members of Congress to stand up for New Jersey, as we have stood up for them in the past. To suggest that we sit and talk and talk and talk belies the state’s current reality.”
Republicans persistently criticized Murphy for shutting down government and preventing businesses from reopenin faster. “The pandemic was an act of God, and sometimes Governor Murphy thinks he is God,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-24).
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26) said it was the worst legisation he’s ever seen.
“This is all being blamed on President Trump,” said the Morris County-based Republican. “It’s a $5 billion authorization for borrowing from the federal government and another $9 billion from municipalities and an unlimited line of criedt. It starts with $5 billion but it’s much more than that. Not only is it reckless to give that kind of authority to the governor, but you’re euthoritizing the governor to take out a mortgage on every home in this state.
“It does authorize a statewide property tax. Moreover, it is illegal. …This bill is unconstitutional and I think it will be stopped in court.”
The debate raged against the backdrop – or within the grip – of another ongoing national crisis.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35) at the start of today’s New Jersey Assembly Session remembered George Floyd as he recognized protests around the world because of the Minnesota black man’s “heinous death” while in the custory of Minneapolis police officers.
The Paterson lawmaker referred to 401 years of injustice that have come to a head like no other “maybe because of the pandemic.”
“I can’t breathe,” said Wimberly, citing the names of Black Americans killed in policy custody.
“I can’t breathe.”
“A sound we hear all around the country,” said the father of four black sons. “We have been put behind the eight ball.”
At the close of his speech, Wimberly told his colleagues on this afternoon’s conference call that he would
stand with a raised fist in solidarity with the persecuted and the fallen.
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27) likewise redirected the governing body’s attention to severity of the crisis at hand, nanely COVID, noting the deaths of nearly 12,000 New Jerseyans from complications arising from the virus. The GOP was nitpicking, said McKeon, over whether “Nail salons should have been opened two weeks sooner.”
“How can the federal government be trusted?” the Democrat from West Orange wanted to know. “We need the access now. The interest rate won’t be greater than three percent,hopefully. At the end of the day, we need to open this line of credit, because winter is coming. Anyone who is saying we are giving the governor a blank check is forgetting who is on this call.”
The authority rests with the Legislature, McKeon argued, who referred to the State of New Jersey in 1860, when future General (and future New Jersey Governor) George McClellan led the Union Army, and the state faced massive financial outlay across fiscal years, “which is why they went and borrowed general obligaton bonds,” the assemblyman noted.
Assemblywooman Shavonda Sumter (D-35) backed McKeon.
“The ecnomic impact has crushed our economy in 11 weeks,” she said. “All our priorities hang in the balance. I agree we must maintain our fiduciary responsibility. It’s going on to close to one million people seeking
unemployment. It’s a hard vote for us to take today as a result of economic duress.” But she supports the act.
Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27) likewise urged her colleagues to back the bonding bill to secure funds to meet financial obligations, including “Our communities of color which have been impacted by COVID-19. “To fail to pass this measure is an abrogation of our responsibility,” she said. “Winter is coming.”
Democrats underlined that the act is an authorization to borrow, not to spend.
“There must be a tone of realism here,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3). “There’s going to be a
lot of pain. We’re ggoing to have to be very stern gatekeepers.
“We have to prepare for what is going to be a very, very painful budget cycle,” added the veteran South Jersey lawmaker, a former Budget Chair.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” said medical doctor Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-7), chair of the Assembly Health Committee. “We’ve got unemployment at 15%; perhaps it will go higher.”
“This is a proactive apprach rather than a reactive approach,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-31).
“In the name of my late husband…” I vote ‘no’,” said Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-26), widow of the late Alex DeCroce, former Republican Leader.
The act passed on party lines, with only assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-34) on the Democratic side.
In the aftermath, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29), chair of the budget committee, issued the following statement:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had and continues to have a devastating impact on the State’s economy. Residents, businesses, and government units have seen significant adverse effects.
“The ‘New Jersey COVID-19 Emergency Bond Act’ authorizes the State to issue State general obligation
bonds to help address the fiscal crisis caused by this pandemic.
“The impact of COVID-19 on our economy, budget and finances is unpredictable and changing rapidly.
“We must take action to ensure our fiscal viability by empowering the State to apply for and receive federal stimulus loans for the benefit of State and local government units as they respond to the negative impacts of the coronavirus.
“We do not make this decision lightly. The historic nature of the current pandemic has led to this unprecedented last resort due to the current fiscal crisis.”
- Alex DeCroce
- Angela McKnight
- BettyLou DeCroce
- Britnee Timberlake
- COVID-19 Emergency Bond Act
- Craig Coughlin
- Donald Trump
- Doug Steinhardt
- Eliana Pinto Marin
- Gary Schaer
- George McClellan
- Hal Wirths
- Herb Conaway
- James Florio
- James McGreevey
- Jay Webber
- John Burzichelli
- John DiMaio
- John McKeon
- John Reitmeyer
- Jon Bramnick
- Jon Corzine
- Kevin Rooney
- Leonard Lance
- Lou Greenwald
- New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC)
- New Jersey Legislature
- Phil Murphy
- Saily Avelenda
- Shavonda Sumter
- Tom Kean
Click here for the full Insider Index