It’s Time to Update the Budget Process

Year in and year out, New Jersey begins its annual budget process with a formal address from the Governor, detailing his or her proposal for the Legislature, the media and the public. The immediate response is predictable. The minority party, be it Democrat or Republican, will be critical. The party in power will be supportive, although there may be a few who do not buy in, usually because of some component of the proposal that negatively impacts their particular constituencies.

Regardless of which side you come down on for Governor Corzine’s Fiscal 2010 budget proposal, most of us would agree that the process that New Jersey uses to enact the state budget is ripe for improvements. I have been involved with our state budgets for 25 years – as a reporter and as a staffer, first in the Legislature and later in the Governor’s Office – and the process we use today is essentially the same as it was a quarter century ago and maybe even longer than that.

As things stand now, the budget process starts in February or March when the Governor delivers his or her proposal to the State Legislature. Over the next couple of weeks the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees will hold separate series of hearings. Most will be with cabinet members who present and defend their departmental budgets; a few will be set aside for public comments.

Other than the fact that there is considerable duplication in the two sets of hearings, the process sounds well and good on paper. But in reality the impact that this long public process has on the final budget product is far less than it should be. When crunch time comes and the clock is ticking toward the June 30 budget deadline, all too often critical decisions are made by just a few people meeting in private. The group typically includes the Governor, the Senate President, the Assembly Speaker, and a few others, such as the heads of the two legislative budget committees. They negotiate and hammer out details, and then everyone else gets to vote. There usually is a rush to get the budget bill printed. Sometimes major proposals are added in the waning days of the budget process and placed before the full Legislature without the benefit of public hearings and thorough review. Members of the minority party will complain – with some justification – that there is not ample time to evaluate the final budget proposal and all of its components.

Despite it all, the process works. Each year, the state manages to enact a budget and keep New Jersey in business (although it took a few extra days to do so back in 2006). But now in 2009, we have the technology to not only to improve the budget process, but also to make it more transparent.

Let’s start off with the Governor’s budget address. As I indicated in an earlier column, the value of formal speeches and all the trappings that come with them may be obsolete in the 21st Century. The internet is how most of us get our information today. So why not eliminate the budget address and just post the Governor’s budget message on the state website and link it to the actual budget document with all the details for any of us who want to see specific parts of the proposal?

In fact, we could make better use of the internet throughout the entirety of the budget process. Instead of testifying (sometimes twice) before budget committees, cabinet members could outline their departmental budgets on the web. Their presentations would be there for everyone to look at, scrutinize, and question. Adding a blog-like format would allow the committee members, as well as the public, to post questions, and the responses from the cabinet would be right there online for all of us to read so we can make our own determinations.

If we did something similar for the public hearings, it would open up the process to many more New Jersey citizens. Under the current system, there are at best a few regional budget hearings during which members of the public can voice their opinions. They often take place during the day when most of us are trying to earn a living, so it is difficult for the many New Jerseyans to take part. But by employing a similar blog-like format, we could make it possible for anyone to provide input. No longer would it matter where you live or when you work. Instead, you could log on to the computer 24/7, post your comments and hopefully have them read and considered by the lawmakers charged with developing and voting on the state budget.

Updating the budget process along these lines would have its challenges, but it is worth a try. After all, it is 2009 and New Jersey should have a budget process that was built for the 21st Century.

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