Christmas tree debate on budget continues

Christmas in June can be very difficult.

“Christmas tree” debate on budget continues

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/18/07

TRENTON — Amid a federal investigation into state budget grants and looming debate on this year’s proposed spending plan, a question has been bandied about by lawmakers
aiming to either laud or disparage this year’s budget.

What exactly constitutes so-called pork barrel spending?

Is $250,000 for the Camden Eye Center inappropriate spending that got into the budget because Camden is represented by influential lawmakers?

Or does that keep alive a program that delivers eye care for children, the elderly and the homeless?

Is $37.5 million for Trenton wasteful spending that favors the needs of one community because it’s represented by key lawmakers?

Or is it help for a struggling capital city, where nearly half the property is tax-exempt government buildings?

The ongoing federal inquiry focuses on whether legislators have personally benefited from grants that have been anonymously put into the budget by lawmakers without public review. And Republicans plan to spend this week arguing that Democrats stuffed this year’s $33.48 billion budget with $361 million in grants that only benefit some districts.

They also will claim the spending helps Democrats who control state government curry favor with voters.

“It looks like this budget will be business as usual in Trenton, with more spending, more pork and our property taxpayers and school districts getting shortchanged,” said Assemblyman Joseph Malone, R-Burlington.

Democrats, though, argue that they have added only about $10 million in such spending, far less than previous years.

“Most of what you’re going to find are not district specific, but more general in
nature,” said Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex.

Assembly and Senate budget committees are expected to meet today to consider the budget, which calls for no tax increases and boosts property tax relief. Plans call for adopting the budget on Thursday, nine days before the state’s constitutional deadline.

That would be a far cry from last year, when legislators and Gov. Jon S. Corzine could not agree on a budget plan, closing state government for a week.

Codey said state aid to hospitals and nonprofit groups cannot be considered inappropriate spending or as they’re called in New Jersey Christmas-tree items.

“I think that’s incredibly unfair,” Codey said.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, disagrees, citing the Trenton aid, $1 million for a Montclair school district minority student program and $150,000 for oyster development as examples of “egregious expenditures.”

Corzine, who has expressed concern about how legislators added special projects to the budget, seems ready to accept the spending proposed by his fellow Democratic lawmakers.

“There are real definition questions about what Christmas-tree items are,” Corzine said. “I would suggest to you that you will see dramatically lower levels of individual earmarks, if you will, for legislators and that they will have met standards of having impact across the state.”

Assemblyman Kevin O’Toole, R-Bergen, said legislators should have to come to today’s budget hearings to defend extra spending they have sought and received.

Amid the federal inquiry, grant requests were posted this year on the Legislature’s Web site.

“Transparency has happened,” Codey said. “It’s still not a perfect system, but we’ve obviously made a giant move and stride toward that.”