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OP-ED: After record spending and mistrust in NJ, the state budget process needs fixing

By Aura Dunn

It’s been over a month since lawmakers passed the largest state budget ever, which hiked spending by over 15% from the previous year. Protesters gathered outside the capitol as lawmakers voted with just minutes to review the 299-page budget before casting a final vote.


One Trenton observer described it as a “fiscal calamity,” while The Star-Ledger editorial board referred to it as “a clandestine affair.


Keep in mind, the public still has not yet been given the details of the last-minute legislative spending requests. More than $1 billion was presumably added by Democratic lawmakers who control the state Senate and Assembly.


Perhaps having access to those resolutions before we voted on the budget would have helped answer crucial questions like who, what, where, when and why? That would have been useful knowledge before we voted.


In all the hours we spent together in the budget committee room, not once did I hear an explanation – or even a request – to add legislative resolutions. The truth is that these negotiations are done behind closed doors.


Democrats couldn’t even settle on a name for their extra spending items. They objected to the terms “Christmas tree ornaments,” “pork,” and “earmarks.” I was waiting for the bar of soap to come out since they were so upset. The closest they came to accepting a phrase for these costly add-ons was deeming them “legislative add-ons.”


But the lack of transparency didn’t begin and end there.


At two different budget hearings, I challenged the secretary of Higher Educationand the treasurer to explain why a funding request for one community college exceeded what the state’s community colleges requested collectively. Neither could offer an answer.

Mind you, this was all happening when you were at work, the grocery store (paying a lot more for a lot less), or getting your kids off the bus.


Believing the men and women you elect are capable stewards of the state’s finances is hard given the half-hearted responses and conveniently inconvenient process.

According to a Pew Research Center survey from 2022, 65% of Americans believe politicians run for office to serve their own personal interests, while just 21% said they trust the government to do the right thing always or most of the time. For nearly two decades, the public has had a low opinion of the government and elected officials.

In the words of American businessman Harvey Mackay, “You do not get what you want, you get what you negotiate.”


Who are you sending to Trenton to negotiate for you? Do they care about open government? Do they have the courage to stand up to special interests and make difficult choices or will they be a rubber stamp for their friends?


In Trenton, where the majority party has been in power for the last two decades, the status quo is eroding the basic principles of good government.


During the public budget signing, reporters grilled Gov. Phil Murphy on how the entire budget process appears to be becoming more opaque with each passing year. He claimed that as chairman of the National Governors Association, he had a look at other states and boasted about how it’s done here. That’s unfortunate because I can’t imagine it being any worse.


We must demonstrate to the people of New Jersey that we will and can do better. To that end, I am offering three suggestions to dramatically improve the way New Jersey drafts its annual spending plan.


First, the Legislature should make budget resolutions available to the public by June 1 of each year.


Secondly, I propose eliminating earmarks and replacing them with a competitive grant process.


And finally, an independent revenue analysis, rather than one from a political appointee, would provide an unbiased account of state finances.

Creating a trusted budget process will not only successfully separate necessary spending from waste, but restore faith in our government and leaders.


When transparency and fiscal responsibility are sacrificed by politicians at the bargaining table, we all lose.


Assemblywoman Aura Dunn has served on the Assembly Budget Committee since January 2022. She the 25th Legislative District, which includes parts of Morris and Somerset counties.


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