By Assemblyman Alex Sauickie
Many of us enjoy streaming TV series, sometimes “binge-watching” them out of curiosity about the plot twists and drama to come next. Well, my review of this season’s state budget saga is in: it had its twists and turns, no doubt entertaining to some observers but too few participants, and the finale was not very good at all.
As regular readers know, it started out with a proposal for devastating state aid cuts for many schools in the Ocean-Monmouth region, particularly for Jackson. One of the few positive plot twists was the successful legislative revolt in this election year, which eliminated two-thirds of the proposed cuts. As your representative, I was an active participant in that effort.
Then, in late May, Speaker Coughlin surprised most observers – and many of us participants – by announcing his proposed “StayNJ” plan to give seniors over age 65 a property tax relief check of up to $10,000. This came three months after the budget process began, and about a month before it was set to end with the constitutional deadline of June 30.
At this point, it was up to the budget writing committees to figure out how to incorporate the new program’s cost of about $300 million in the first year, on its way up to $1.2 billion. At the same time, Speaker Coughlin announced expansions of existing senior programs, the Medicare Savings Programs, the Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled (PAAD) Program, and the Senior Gold Prescription Discount Program. These added new costs to the budget as well.
In early June, with only three weeks to go before the budget deadline, top aides to Governor Murphy publicly criticized the Coughlin proposal and effectively said a government shutdown over it wasn’t off the table. One aide noted the millionaire governor would get $10,000 that he doesn’t need under the proposal, while renters would get nothing.
Two weeks later, with nine days to go before the deadline, the governor, Speaker Coughlin and Senate President Scutari announced a compromise on the plan. It was reported five days after that – with four days left before the deadline – that an agreement on the overall budget was reached. Committee votes were scheduled for the Wednesday before the Friday deadline. Lots of last-minute drama here, but things would get even worse.
Once legislators decide what they want to do, they turn over the actual bill drafting work to professional staff. These folks, from the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS), do incredibly detailed and meticulous work to ensure legislation is drafted properly.
While they certainly had a lot of information to go on by this point, OLS reportedly got most of the details needed to finalize the budget bill early in the final week with very short deadlines. That would have been enough to make for a difficult job.
But it was reported that they were faced with another huge problem: the electronic system used to create the budget bill and automatically make the necessary calculations of vast numbers of dollar figures crashed. They were left with no choice but to make those calculations by hand. For some, I’m sure this is where the story went from a drama to a horror show.
When the budget committees of the Assembly and Senate met that Wednesday, some might say the horror show became a farce, although the state budget should be serious business. With a midnight procedural deadline approaching, the committees began to consider the budget for a vote.
One problem: there was no budget. Minority Republicans protested that they did not have a budget bill in front of them.
They were being asked to vote based on summaries called “score sheets”. Not only that, but they contended the score sheets were riddled with errors. Majority Democrats called a vote anyway. One political website aptly summarized the action in this headline: “Committees approve idea of a budget”.
Reports were that the budget bill itself was so full of errors that the Legislature would have to pass it to beat the Friday midnight deadline, and then return later to pass legislative fixes. That turned out to be unnecessary, apparently.
Ultimately, I voted against the budget, which was $1.2 billion higher than originally proposed by Gov. Murphy while revenues are forecast to be $1 billion lower. It’s 57% higher than the budget Murphy inherited, growing from $34.6 billion to a staggering $54.3 billion, requiring more taxes from residents to support the excessive spending while still cutting state school aid to Jackson and other schools I represent.
I hope this process isn’t renewed for the next budget season. New Jersey taxpayers can’t afford the price of this show.
Alex Sauickie is a life-long Jackson resident who represents his home town and 13 other towns in the State Assembly. Follow him on Facebook (/AssemblymanAlex) and on Instagram (@ AssemblymanAlex), or visit his website at AssemblymanAlex.com.
Note: This opinion piece originally appeared in The Jackson Times by Jersey Shore Online in its publication dated July 15, 2023.