Voting along party lines – with two notable execeptions – with (most publicly passionately) Republicans opposed and unthreatened Democrats relying on their comfortable majority, the state senate today affirmed S-2697, a $9.9 billion borrowing bill ostensibly aimed at keeping New Jersey’s budget afloat during the COVID-19 crisis.
The vote was 22-15.
Senator Dawn Addiego (D-8) was a “No”, and Senator Nia Gill (D-34) was a “No”. Senator Vin Gopal (D-
11) was off the bill. Senator Steve Oroho (R-24) and Senator James Holzapfel (R-10) were absent.
In a state already saddled by years of compounded financial mismanagement and the consequences of overspending, borrowing and a political corruption culture, the so-called New Jersey COVID-19 Emergency Bond Act sparked intense debate on the floor of the senate, including a perhaps not inevitable reference to Gollum in Lord of the Rings. It was a budget denouement grimly overcast by a deadly virus; already bad news intensified, or the dreaded crystallization of realization that a fundamentally slack, overweight and unprepared state was now in the biggest fight of its existence since the 1918 pandemic influenza.
Republicans shook their heads in fear of Democrats seizing on COVID-19 to ramrod further mismanagement, while at least one Democrat smacked them over their own silence during the state’s financial downgrades in the years of Governor Chris Christie. In the end, outright opposition to the bill included Democrat Gill, who cited lack of transparency and a failure to adequately represent minorities on a commission that has final authority over bonding pursuant to the bill.
Setpieced in a committee hearing yesterday by Senator Joe Cryan (D-20) as “World War Three,” the debate actually proved considerably more sedate, or at least undramatically lopsided, its outcome dictated by the 25-15 senate imbalance of Democrats to Republicans respectively.
“Any borrowing that is done, the legislature will have input into that process,” said state senator Paul Sarlo (D-36). “On March 9, 2020, the governor isssued his first executive order and through April 29th, he issued 25 plus executive orders, which essentially shut down New Jersey and brought us to a halt. [Now] most of the hospitals in North Jersey have single digit patients. As New Jersey begins to rebound, the fiscal crisis is up by epic proportions, quite frankly, What is before you will give the executive branch two authorizations to borrow.”
$2.7 billion for the current fiscal year;
$7.2 billion for 2021.
The bill creates a COVID-19 Emergency Commission, to be comprised of two members of the Senate
selected by the Senate President and two members of the General Assembly selected by the Speaker of the General Assembly (Senate President Steve Sweeney, Speaker Craig Coughlin, Senator Sarlo, and Asemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin) . All Democrats. Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) tried to offer an amendment to require the legislature to include minority members on the commision. He ran into an overrruling by the governing body, in the interest of time, according to Senate Majority Loretta Weinberg (D-37).
Sarlo kept on the main argument to plug a $10 billion shortfall.
“Now is not the time to tax ourselves out of this situation,” said the Senate Budget Committee Chairman. “If the shortfall doesn’t happen we don’t have to borrow those dollars. This is an authorization to borrow money, to continue to fund education for most vulnerable citizens.”
Republicans vigorously disagreed.
“This legislation is premature,” said state senator Tony Bucco, Jr. (R-25). “The amount of borrowing is excessive and violates state constitution. No one will argue the 2021 budget isn’t going to be a challenge. The governor is not scheduled to propose a budget until August. The premise is we neeed to borrow $2.7 billion for lost revenue for the 2020 budget and $7.2 billion for the 2021 budget. This is not lost revenue. These represent differences in revenue forecasts. $9.9 billion represents the governor’s wants, so he can continue to spend at the levels he proposed when the economy was booming. We simply cannot afford to keep spending at the rate we have in the past.
“Don’t take the easy way out,” Bucco added. “Don’t mortagage our future in a state that is already overburdened.”
Countering, Rice – although unsatisfied with the lack of teeth pertaining to the commission – backed the bill. “I’m not happy about this committee,” said the veteran Democrat, “but I also know there is concern among workers that the state is going to shut down.”
Senator Bob Singer (R-30) protested.
“I’ve never seen a committee that had all members of the majority,” he said. “This group of minority members here represent millions of people in this state. We represent black and Hispanics.”
He ticked off a number of minorities. “Those millions of people do not have a seat at the table,” said Singer. “That is outrageous.”
Freshman Senator Michael Testa, Jr. (R-1) decried the bill as a “giant middle finger to the taxpayers of this state.”
“Like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, he’s [the governor’s] been slinking around the corridors of Trenton begging to borrow,” said Testa, a member of the Senate Budget Committee. “This is hardly going to make New Jersey stronger and fairer, we will only be weaker and pooer. Period. Full stop.
“Even Karl Marx would blush at the premise of $10 billion of borrowing,” the senator added. “There is no justice for
the taxpayer in this bill.”
Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-13) denounced the bill as little more than a slush fund opportunity. “[The money],” he said, “will be gone and all be owed by us and our children.”
Likewise rising in opposition, state Senator Kip Bateman (R-16) – and hearkening back to the legislature’s blunder when it backed Governor Christie Todd Whitman’s borrowing scheme – argued the wrong-headedness of a borrowing bill of such scale without voter approval.
Senator Dick Codey (D-27) – a former governor – stepped up his support for Governor Phil Murphy,
although he wanted bipartisan commission representation, and complained about senate leadership’s tactics.
“Senator Rice, I agree with you, Senator Singer, I agree with you, when it comes to a pandemic, this is unlike anything we have seen in our lives,” said an impassioned Codey. “It’s time to stop this pettiness. This is totally out of it. Not one upgrade on our bonds for eight years. We all knew those [Governor Chris] Christie budgets were a joke, and nobody said anything. It’s time to come together. I’ve got no problem with the Republicans being included. It can’t always be the same people on our side of the aisle.”
Like Rice and Codey, state Senator Nia Gill (D-34) also expressed frustration over the proposed backroom commission, consisting, she noted, of four white males. “The only voices in that room will be the voices that reflect their reality,” she said. “You cannot talk about names like ‘freeholder’ unlesss you can be represented. I cannot in good conscience lock the legislative doors to minorities and the Republicans, because at the end of the day, the virus, COVID, knows no boundaries.”
She would vote no.