After GOP lawmakers peppered the Assembly Budget chair over Democrats’ fiscal reasoning, the New Jersey General Assembly this afternoon affirmed its version of the COVID-19 Emergency Bond Act, authorizing the issuance of state bonds totaling $9.9 billion. Republicans vehemently opposed the bill, citing moral and ethical issues and questioning the constitutionality of borrowing without voter approval without a plan to pay the money back, while Democrats relied on crisis arguments made in the teeth of a deadly virus that so far killed 15,665 people, closed the state, and persists with no apparent end in sight.
The vote tally was 46-26.
“I’ve never thought I’d be living under a king in the state of New Jersey,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-24), a reference to Governor Phil Murphy. “We have done nothing on the cost savings. …It’s morally wrong, what we’re doing. …It’s the last thing New Jersey needs.”
He pointed out that the state still owes $2 billion from borrowing in the 1990’s.
A constitutional argument ensued early, spearheaded by Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26).
“We can’t pass this bill,” Webber said. “On the first day of every legislature we take an oath. The Consitituton of the State of New Jersey does not allow you to do what you want to do. It does not allow you to borrow for operating expenses. We can’t pass this bill. Anyone in this chamber who’s taken that bill can’t vote for this bill.”
The veteran Morris-based assemblyman then directed questions at Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29), chair of the assembly Budget Committee.
“Do you have any legal analysis that says this bill is constitutional?” Webber wondered.
“The Attorney General of the State of New Jersey has a different opinion [than the Office of Legislative Services],” said Pintor Marin.
“You didn’t speak to the Attorney General directly,” said the assemblyman.
Then he put the same question to Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19), asking him if he had written evidence from the Attorney General of New Jersey.
“I have extreme confidence that the attorney general’s opinion is valid,” Pintor Marin broke in.
“Where is it?” Webber said. “It doesn’t exist. …I think the governor’s plan is try to borrow the money and hope that c ourt bails us out. If anyone has a written opinion on whether this is constitutional, please share it with us.”
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27) countered Webber, denouncing the GOP as “the party of no.”
“Winter is coming,” said McKeon. “There is a $7.2 billion deficit starting October 1st. If we were to eliminate every job, that number is $5 billion, and even more if it is prorated over an eight month period. We can’t tax our way out of this if we wanted to. What else can be done, other than to allow our governor to open a line of credit.
“These are tough times for our entire state,” said McKeon, comparing the crisis to the Civil War, when the government borrrowed.
“I’m your huckleberry,” Webber shot back, quoting Doc Holliday (pictured at right) opposing fellow gunslinger Johnny Ringo in the classic western Tombstone, boasting that he could tackle and balance the state’s budget woes without borrowing.
Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-23) rose to question Pintor Marin.
“Would you support an alternative that would supply the state with revenues?” the assemblyman asked.
“We would be happy to look at any alternatives other than have to borrow,” said the Newark-based assemblywoman.
“Taking on more debt is not a way to get out of debt,” DiMaio said. “We cannot borrow our way out of debt. This is the lazy way out.”
Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-25) likewise quizzed the chair of the budget committee.
“This is just simply an option that will authorize borrowing,” Pintor Marin said.
Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R-13) urged lawmakers not to give Murphy a blank check, while Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-39) decried the lack of transparency and discussion between the executive and legislative branches. She echoed the same concerns expressed by Senator Robrt Singer (R-30) and Senator Nia Gill (D-34) in the senate earlier this afternoon. “Will this select committee of four hold any public hearings?” Schepisi wanted to know. Unsatisfied by the answer, the Bergen-based assemblywoman said she planned to vote no.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-6) stepped in, pointing out that hard, crisis-time decisions
trigger constitutional challenges, and he trusts the arguments Grewal will furnish to defend borrowing during the COVID-19 catastrophe.
“To my friends who have talked about the desire of how to cut taxes while summoning $10 billion, we welcome your ability to do it,” he said. He hasn’t seen it, and he hasn’t seen any response from the federal government to DiMaio, who appealed to President Donald J. Trump for help.
A battleground district occupant, Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-16) said Republicans raised legitimate concerns, but argued that the bill gives New Jersey choices. “The legislature will have the ability to check unbridled borrowing,” he said.
“New Jersey does not have a track record of doing this well,” he added, “and that is what I will be keeping my eye on. If we do get support from the federal government, how are we going to be applying that? I will be supporting this but I will be looking toward better and more concise management of our debt going forward.”
Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-20) spoke in favor of the bill – with reservations.
“When I see a committee that does not look like me, I don’t know that my interests are being represented,” he said.
Like Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) and Senator Nia Gill (D-34) in the upper house, the Union County-based assemblyman lamented the absence of African-American representatives on the four-person commission.
He peppered Pintor Marin and then Coughlin.
“Is she aware of the names of individuals on the commission?” Holley asked the speaker.
Coughlin didn’t answer the question. Pintor Marin then tentatively confirmed the names of the four members of the commission, already reported: Sweeney, Coughlin, Pintor Marin and Senator Paul Sarlo.
Holley subsequently made a motion to add two additional members to the commission seeking the appointment of a black and hispanic member to the commission. The governing body tabled the motion by a vote of 44- 26-2.
“Instituional racisim continues,” Holley concluded.
“I understand the frustration of Assemblyman Holley,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35). “But I trust [Pintor Marin] and the other leaders on the commission.”
Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-7) struck back at Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin (R-10), who earlier said he would oppose the bill because it eliminates the will of the people, who won’t have a chance to express their specific opinion at the ballot box.
The lawmakers are elected to make those calls, the assemblywoman argued.
“I’ve asked my leaders,” Murphy said. “Not one of them has come back to me and said not to borrow, because we ned to. If we choose not to borrow, that will be told by the budget committee. This is not to determine what the state spends money on, it’s to determine – if spendin is needed – those four folks, with counsel by their colleagues – will [offer] oversight of the administration.”
Assemblyman Gary Schear (D-36) derided the GOP’s essential argument as intellectually dishonest, pointing out that his colleagues back President Donald J. Trumps’ spending but resist Murphy in their own state. “On this level alone if there was any way we could get clarity: national level this way, but on the state, another?”
- Benjie Wimberly
- Brian Bergen
- Carol Murphy
- COVID-19 Emergency Bond Act
- Craig Coughlin
- Eliana Pintor Marin
- Gary Schaer
- Gregory McGuckin
- Hal Wirths
- Holly Schepisi
- Jamel Holley
- Jay Webber
- John McKeon
- Jon Bramnick
- Lou Greenwald
- Phil Murphy
- Roy Freiman
- Serena DiMaso
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