The NJ Budget: Taking the long view

By Mary E. Forsberg, Research Director

Public hearings on the state budget began yesterday in Paramus and continue today in Trenton. These hearings offer everyone the chance to have his or her say on next year’s state spending priorities as they were laid out by Governor Christie in his budget address two weeks ago. The hearing rooms are often packed. The opinions offered represent both those of polished lobbyists and concerned citizens. While these hearings can be tedious and time consuming, and too often discounted by insiders, they are the one time in the process that citizens can publicly have their say.

Hearings have been scheduled in five locations across the state. At the Senate hearings, scheduled yesterday in Paramus and on March 15 in Blackwood, anyone can speak on any subject related to the state budget. Each of the Assembly hearings, scheduled for March 8 in Trenton, March 16 in Montclair and March 23 in Blackwood, has a specific theme. More information is available on the Legislature’s website.

The public hearings take place before the regular hearings, in which revenues projections are explained and in which each state department is called before the budget committees to explain funding and programs. At those hearings, NJPP will follow along with a special series on its blog posts.

The Governor’s annual budget presents three years’ of data: the amount spent in FY 2010; the amount likely to be spent through the end of FY 2011 on June 30; and the amount the governor proposes to spend in FY 2012, beginning on July 1 of this year.

NJPP will take a longer view in its budget analysis this year by looking at the changes that have occurred since 2008, when state collections and spending were at their most robust. That year, the state collected and spent more money than in any year before or since.

There are a number of reasons to take this approach.

First, these are unprecedented times. New Jersey, like other states, is slowly beginning to recover from one of the nation’s worst recessions since the Great Depression. Never have state revenues fallen so much or languished so long.

Second, a comparison of FY 2008, FY 2010 and FY 2012 shows in a more obvious way where spending has changed. A longer term view can help decide whether the spending trajectory in particular is appropriate—or whether the state is in the process of decimating important public services.

Third, Governor Christie has made it clear his plan is to shrink the state budget, privatize as many public services as possible and fundamentally change the way business is conducted in New Jersey. These fundamental changes suggest it is critical to compare his proposed budget to how the state has spent state resources in the past, rather than simply compare year-to-year in the Christie administration.

Finally, to restate the first point — these are unprecedented times.

Never before have middle class public employees—teachers, police, firefighters, garbage collectors, even secretaries—been under such virulent attack with so little justification. Governor Christie is among those who vilify the work of people who provide the essential and important public services New Jersey residents have come to expect. If the governor breaks the public-sector unions as private-sector businesses have done over the past 20 years, New Jersey will be a different place in the future and will not be positioned for growth when the economy turns around.

The following table presents the state budget through its spending priorities. It breaks spending down into the state’s executive, judicial and legislative branches. Within the executive branch, it further breaks the budget down by department. This is a complete snap shot of state expenditures. All of each department’s programs are contained within the amounts shown.

What stands out:

    • The FY 2012 budget proposed by Governor Christie would spend nearly $4.2 billion (12.5 percent) less than the state spent in FY 2008.

    At this point, little is known about what these reductions mean in terms of programs and services. That will become more obvious during the months of hearings that follow.

    Taking the long view before delving into the details is meant to encourage people in New Jersey to consider the future they want.  As budget hearings proceed, NJPP will provide additional research and analysis to help New Jerseyans make more informed decisions about the policies and services they want, and what they are willing to give up in order to have them.