Sarlo’s Budget Warning to Murphy

Sarlo

What could have been, and should have been, a relatively smooth path to legislative approval of the proposed 2022-23 fiscal year state budget, one free from controversy and the usual haggling over spending priorities, has — thanks to a remarkable strategic blunder by the Administration — produced acrimony, bruised feelings and a sense of betrayal.

The Administration decision to cut the Legislature out of any role in deciding how to spend $3 billion in pandemic relief aid under the multi-trillion-dollar American Rescue Plan roused even the soft-spoken Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) to lecture state treasurer Elizabeth Muoio that restoration of the Legislature’s oversight authority was “non-negotiable,” before budget deliberations could proceed.

Sarlo’s reaction was an extraordinary warning reflecting a sense that Gov. Phil Murphy’s Administration had misled the legislative leadership by deleting from the proposed budget language that provided the Joint Budget and Oversight Committee with approval authority over the expenditure of the Federal funds.

The authority was included in the current fiscal year budget but eliminated from that submitted by the governor for the approaching fiscal year.

While Muoio was unable to provide an explanation for the change in the Administration position, Sarlo — with the support of Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) — made it clear that budget consideration would not proceed until the language was reinstated.

Striking the language providing for legislative involvement in the decision-making process — whatever rationale the Administration may come up with — was a foolish and unnecessary act which could only infuriate the legislative leadership while offering no conceivable benefit to the governor.

It signaled the prevailing Administration view that the Legislature could not be trusted with the authority to decide when and where the Federal aid would be disbursed.

It smacked of an arrogance that relegated the Legislature to a subordinate role, a message that the Administration should be the final authority reaching decisions on its own and expecting the Legislature to follow without complaint.

Deleting the language cannot be dismissed as a bureaucratic oversight; its inclusion in the current fiscal year budget is clear evidence that Administration was well aware of its existence. It required a deliberate decision to single it out and eliminate it, presumably in the belief that it would either not be noticed or, if it was, could be dealt with and explained away quickly and quietly.

It was astonishingly poor decision, one which might be more likely made by an Administration in its initial year and still feeling its way through legislative relationships.

Murphy is in his fifth year and presumably has gained sufficient experience and insight in navigating the often turbulent cross currents that roil the legislative process.

How he or anyone of his close advisers and staff could conclude that alienating legislative leaders by publicly suggesting their role in government is merely a secondary supporting one would advance the Administration agenda for the next three years is a mystery.

Attempting to remove the Legislature’s oversight authority is gratuitously unnecessary. It is common practice for proposed spending to be negotiated privately to avoid public confrontation and present a united front, all parties involved in agreement.

The clear value of that process has been undermined by the Administration stance that spending decisions will be reached without legislative input and that it is not open to negotiation and compromise.

Deleting the oversight language was a major strategic blunder, inflicting a political migraine which will take time to relieve.

Legislators take their status as a co-equal branch of government seriously and do not take kindly to any public characterization that they are of lesser importance.

In his response to the state treasurer, Sarlo spelled it out in unmistakable terms:” It’s something that we agreed upon. We’re all in this together and we have an obligation to ensure these Federal dollars are properly spent.”

There will surely be efforts to smooth over the controversy but in light of Sarlo’s stern warning,   there appears to be no option for the Administration — restore the language.

A side effect of the uproar has been a refocus on the concerns that the proposed budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars in new or expanded program spending, all supported by the Federal assistance, an unanticipated increase in tax revenues and massive borrowing.

As the funds are exhausted, the programs that rely upon them will become unsustainable, requiring tax increases to continue them or their elimination.

Murphy, critics argue, will be gone from office by the time the fiscal reckoning comes due, escaping responsibility and leaving the Legislature to deal with the politically fraught task of closing a possible budget shortfall.

The ground has shifted beneath what had appeared at the outset to be shaping up as a calm and possibly even genial budget process.

The heavy-handed Administration attempt to still the legislative voice in disbursing billions in Federal aid along with a government expansion which likely can’t be sustained have combined to re-create the contentiousness and confrontation of years past.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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3 responses to “Sarlo’s Budget Warning to Murphy”

  1. Technically yes. The administration proposes the budget and the Legislature either approves or rejects. Then there’s negotiations. Sarlo is butt-hurt because Murphy isn’t kissing his ring first.

  2. Did anyone catch this:
    “Attempting to remove the Legislature’s oversight authority is gratuitously unnecessary. It is common practice for proposed spending to be negotiated privately to avoid public confrontation and present a united front, all parties involved in agreement.”

    So, the public is left out of the entire budget process because the Legislature doesn’t want public confrontation on the budget, especially where there are wasteful and politically-motivated programs. Now I understand why the State of New Jersey has been a fiscal disaster and is the highest taxed state–on all tax fronts–since the Democrats have been in control of the Legislature for the past 20-25 years. Any wonder why our property taxes are so high????? Because the Legislature doesn’t want public input on how to lower property taxes. They said as much here.

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