In Trenton’s Culling of Pet Projects, Legislators Feel a Bit Left Out

If it is June there is always a fight in Trenton over the budget even when it is approved earlier than normal. To view the projects that were included in this year’s budget click here. The budget items for the Department of Community Affairs are listed on page 6.

The New York Times, June 15, 2007,News Analysis

In Trenton Culling of Pet Projects, Legislators Feel a Bit Left Out

By RONALD SMOTHERS

TRENTON, June 14 — If last year’s budget process in New Jersey ended with a bang — as in a costly seven-day shutdown of the state government — then this year’s is ending with a whimper and a measure of whining.

With the United States attorney sifting through subpoena documents from the past several years looking at add-ons, known as Christmas tree items, lawmakers were forced to rein in their desires for more funds for their districts and causes, which magically found their way into the budget without a formal vetting.

From the beginning, this year the good cops — in the persons of Senate President Richard J. Codey and Assembly Speaker Joseph L. Roberts Jr. — admonished their Democratic troops that the bad cop, in the person of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, was adamant about not accepting a budget that financed a lot of local projects, as budgets had in the past.

They were told to scuttle some of their more parochial proposals that sought to repair this ball field or finance that program for the elderly and instead to submit add-ons that were regional or statewide in scope.

And many legislators, like Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen, a Democrat from Union County, reluctantly did just that. In the end, Senate and Assembly leaders agreed on Wednesday to hold hearings over the next week on an amended budget that adds $189 million to Mr. Corzine’s original proposal, bringing spending up to $33.5 billion.

“I’m not happy because a lot of worthy projects that we wanted to fund won’t get funding,” Mr. Cohen said. “I’ve always been transparent in what I sought, but now we will have to go through a whole different process to get grants for programs.”

Mr. Codey and Mr. Roberts set up a process in which lawmakers submitted written requests for all add-ons by June 6, along with a form disclosing any personal or financial interest in the project. The idea was that the requests and the disclosures would be made public early and subject to some discussion.

Indeed, 492 requests were filed by June 6, though their disclosure — to the public and to the lawmakers —on a legislative Web site did not come until June 13. But then, three hours after the requests were posted, legislative leaders released to the news media their own amended budget, which included only 85 of the 492 requests.

“They must be very fast, these guys; real whiz kids,” State Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Bergen County Democrat, said on Thursday about the short turnaround between the release of legislators’ requests and their culling by the legislative leaders.

The origin of the requests are there for all to see, but few lawmakers could explain exactly why some items were accepted and others were not.

Realistic legislators allow that it was probably difficult to shed a tremendous amount of light on the decisions of legislative leaders.

“It’s what leaders do,” one legislator, whose requests had not made the cut, said sarcastically. The legislator, still hoping to argue for the reinstatement of some items, was granted anonymity.

But Assemblyman Brian P. Stack, Democrat of Union City, was more charitable, saying that “leadership had been fair with us” and that it was making decisions based on what they knew the governor would consider acceptable.

Mr. Stack, along with many legislative colleagues, did not see the leadership’s selections until Thursday. They were scanning the documents in search of their own projects, and taking note of any area of the state that seemed to fare better than their own.

State Senator Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat from Gloucester, had plans scuttled for “a load of grants” and budget requests for projects in about 40 towns in his South Jersey district.

“I can live with ‘no,’ ” Mr. Sweeney said. “But if you tell me no, you can’t tell somebody else yes. I don’t agree with the governor’s blanket rejection of such projects. They are real needs and they aren’t Christmas tree items.”

Still, Mr. Codey — one of the deciders — said he found that members were not inordinately upset at perceived imbalances, and that none had raised questions about whether he and Mr. Roberts had fought hard enough for their colleagues in the budget talks with Mr. Corzine.

But he noted that lawmakers were already talking about ways of addressing this year’s “lack of local programs” in the next budget.

“I think we need to come up with a process that does allow local grants,” Mr. Codey said. “I argued with the governor on that because I don’t agree with him. I could have put those projects in our proposal, but that would not be fair because I know what would happen to them.”

The next step are hearings by legislative budget committees on the revised $33.5 billion budget, which will begin Friday and continue next week. Mr. Roberts has said that he expects the Assembly to be ready to vote on the spending plan by next Thursday.

But some Democratic legislators like State Senators Joseph V. Doria Jr. and Shirley K. Turner, both members of the Budget and Appropriations Committee who saw their requests cut by the leadership, insist that there is still time to make changes.

“This is just a document to work from,” Mr. Doria said. “The process is not over because there are still votes necessary.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company