Spending for golf programs, shade trees, town hall renovations, mostly in Democratic districts

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Dozens of spending items were tucked into the state budget at the last minute by lawmakers this week, while they are arguing the financial strain of the coronavirus pandemic is forcing New Jersey to borrow billions of dollars to maintain core services like education and public safety.

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Among the various projects now in line to be funded by state taxpayers amid the health crisis are shade tree management in Metuchen, a municipal facility renovation in East Brunswick, and the dredging of a reservoir in Clark, according to budget documents made public this week.

Funding has also been set aside amid the pandemic for an Essex County youth golf program, although that item was not added by lawmakers, but instead was first earmarked in the budget that Gov. Phil Murphy sent to lawmakers in late August.

In all, more than $400 million in new spending was added onto Murphy’s proposed budget by lawmakers this week, according to budget documents.

Many of the additions restore funding for things like community colleges and substance-abuse programs that were initially facing cuts as those services were likely to be leaned on heavily as the pandemic continues.

Other additions are altogether new spending items that lawmakers have proposed, apparently in response to current events. They include funding to address racial bias, $50,000, and to pay for anti-discrimination efforts, $50,000. There is also new funding for services provided by Federally Qualified Health Centers, $16 million, and more state aid for distressed cities and other municipalities, $10 million.

Projects in Edison, Paterson

But amid that spending, lawmakers also found state funding for what appear to be pet projects, such as $150,000 to the Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Tower and Museum in Edison, and $1 million for the Hinchliffe Stadium neighborhood restoration project in Paterson.

And under Murphy’s budget request, Essex County’s First Tee golf program will get $4 million in funding.

It’s unclear if a competitive process was used to determine which projects were chosen for the last-minute funding in the overall $32.7 billion state budget now up for final approval in the Legislature on Thursday. Many of the new spending items also appear to be going predominantly to areas represented by the Legislature’s majority Democrats.

The last-minute spending items were added as the budget continues a long-standing practice of not fully funding things like the state’s own K-12 school-aid law and as the governor and lawmakers continue to put language into the budget to shortchange recipients of Homestead property-tax relief benefits — seniors, people with disabilities and low- and middle-income homeowners — by using outdated tax bills to calculate the size of their benefits.

To be sure, adding spending to the budget at the last minute is a time-honored tradition in Trenton. And since the state Constitution gives lawmakers the authority to draft the annual spending bill, it provides a way for them to ensure their own priorities receive attention. Lawmakers also have the power to delete spending sought by the governor in his own budget plan, such as this year’s decision to leave Murphy’s proposed “baby bonds” initiative out of the final spending plan.

‘Christmas-tree items’

But the practice also opens the door to spending on pet projects that over the years has been given the pejorative label of “Christmas-tree items,” a phrase Murphy himself used when he and lawmakers were arguing over taxes and spending in the run-up to last year’s deadline for a state budget.

“You can’t go around the state talking about the fact that we’re in dire fiscal straits … and at the same time add multiple hundreds of millions of dollars of pork,” Murphy said during a news conference on the budget in Paterson last year.

This year, the legislative add-ons are being viewed differently by many in the state since New Jersey continues to struggle with a public health crisis that has triggered significant revenue losses. And it was only a few weeks ago that Murphy administration lawyers were comparing the pandemic’s effect on the state’s finances to events like the Great Depression as they argued for the power to issue bonds without voter approval to offset the projected revenue losses. The budget bill counts on $4.5 billion in borrowing to support spending for the next nine months.

A spokesman for Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) declined comment when asked about the budget add-ons on Wednesday. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) did not immediately comment in response to the same questions.

But Republican lawmakers have been raising strong protests this week about the added spending, including as the budget legislation was put up for committee votes on Tuesday.

“The spending here in this bill is, of course, filled with pork, when we’re pleading ‘we have virtually no money, we’re going broke,’” said Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex) as he cast a vote against the budget legislation.

“We heard about how bad everything has been, and now we see everything thrown into this budget,” said Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex).

“How ironic it is, and contradictory it is, and I’m not sure what the message is,” Oroho went on to say. “In such a bad, bad fiscal situation, there’s a lot of pork in here that got submitted at the last minute and quite frankly I cannot support this budget.”

Despite the criticism from Republicans, the budget legislation and several associated tax-hike bills cleared both the Senate and Assembly budget committees along party lines. Murphy, a first-term Democrat, is expected to take final action to enact the Legislature’s budget package without any changes once Thursday’s votes in the Assembly and Senate take place.

To read the article in the original format, click: NJ lawmakers find millions for pet projects in budget that borrows billions, raises taxes