In the midst of an election cycle, this year’s budget process has been the Governor and Legislature making nice with each other. Both sides are averse to cutting programs popular with the general public, introducing new controversial issues, and engaging in protracted confrontations. We can remember past years when debate, anger and threats ruled. This year the budget was negotiated behind closed doors with the public and the press uninformed about the process. The budget bill (A4200) which is about to be passed in a few days is only now available in an abbreviated form on the Legislature’s main website page.
Our budget system is somewhat perverse. The Governor starts out with what he wants in the budget and presents it to the Legislature. The Legislature then adds items it wants, and deletes items it does not want. Finally, the Governor can line-item veto anything he dislikes but he can not add back in expenses. Of course there are exceptions and subterfuges, but that is how it is supposed to work.
The governor has the upper hand and routinely gets about 90% or more of what he or she wants, but the Legislature can negotiate to appropriate or not appropriate funds for specific items. Nonetheless, Mark Magyar points out today, “As expected, the final budget bill was little changed from the spending plan Christie laid out four months ago.” (Appropriations net changes of $56 million in a $32.9 billion budget.)
The Legislature removed from the Governor’s budget $2 million for the Opportunity Scholarship Act program (school vouchers).
Some of the Legislature’s additions to the budget include $35 million for higher education reorganization; $7.4 million for school districts, rolling back an administration plan to make districts pay more for capital borrowing; and $13.2 million for community providers who care for the mentally disabled.
An item not in the budget is additional funding for pre-school programs. Likewise there are no monies for Planned Parenthood, which will be addressed in separate legislation. There is no funding for Christie’s tax cut plan that he promoted so hard. Nor is there any consideration for a millionaire’s tax surcharge. (Also the $24 million needed for the Special Elections is not included.)
So in the end harmony is preserved. There is nothing wrong per se with accommodation, but in a period of economic upheaval, environmental concerns, high unemployment, pen/ben indebtedness, unresolved social issues, high property taxes, fraying infrastructure, growing poverty, and Sandy recovery efforts, one might yearn for a more robust public discussion of how we set our priorities and spend our money.