Monday, February 19, 2007

A Disdain For Process?
Senate President Codey and the Budget Indagation

As noted earlier, Senator Richard Codey, D-West Orange, is obviously feeling a dose of tension occasioned by the roiling issues associated with budget abuse within the New Jersey legislature. Moreover, it is focused particularly in the upper house, over which he has been exclusively presiding since January of 2004. And for much of that time -- the end of the day on November 15, 2004 until January 17, 2006 -- he was the Acting Governor of the State, with all of the staff resources available to him at that level, as well as his Senate staff resources.

Funny, isn't it that no one ever said, "Hey, does this look a little odd to you . . . ?"

Control is a big thing with Legislators, especially those in leadership. When things go south, they know they risk being asked, “What did you do wrong.” How did you allow this to happen? Codey has nurtured a reservoir of good will as the nice guy over time, but that can drain very quickly in an atmosphere rife with allegations of fiscal malfeasance.

So he is understandably tense. Just remember, he picked his leadership team, including the former Chair of both the Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee, and the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, Senator Wayne Bryant of Lawnside. As noted in a hard-hitting Trentonian column by Charlie Webster late last September, Bryant had a history of putting the touch on state resources for his own benefit.

The escalating pursuit of the New Jersey legislature’s fiscal actions, with swirling allegations of legislators helping themselves to substantial sums from the public till, clearly has put a very uncomfortable light on Codey's stewardship. He does not want to cave in to Republican demands for rule changes in the upper house. The partisan split in the Senate (22-18) is uncomfortably close, and there is an election this year. In this testy atmosphere, he has switched from blaming it on the media, to coining a new phrase “certain politicians” to disdainfully describe those who are pointing to the failures and misappropriations that have reportedly occurred within his leadership team.

Imagine, a politician calling someone a politician! Wow! Could it get any worse than that?

Three recent actions on the part of the Senate President, however, have cast his approach in a peculiar light. And one could conclude that each one of them arguably demonstrates a bit of disdain for process.

The first is that for the past few years he and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts have sidelined the Legislative Services Commission (LSC), the bipartisan Commission that is supposed to oversee the Office of Legislative Services (OLS). Official legislative records show that the Commission has not been meeting as required by law. Roberts is the Chair of that Commission, so he bears the primary responsibility for the failure, but Codey is a member, and the Senate President.

One word from him, and the Commission would have quickly gathered in Room 103!

Last week, all eight Republican members of the 16 member Commission signed on to a letter to call a meeting of the LSC. The signature assent of only one Democrat would have immediately caused the scheduling of a special meeting of the Commission. Codey missed an opportunity to demonstrate real leadership and a recommitment to respect for the legislative process by refusing to be that man. Yet, he put out a phony statement asserting that he and Roberts would petition the court to allow a briefing of the Commission.

Secondly, in the midst of the dust up over a laughable claim of attorney-client privilege and the further wasting of taxpayer resources just to try to frustrate a federal criminal investigation, Codey and Roberts’ prior joint press release that said in part:

What apparently is in dispute is a narrow issue that the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) believes to be of constitutional significance and ultimately it will be up to the court to decide the matter.

Well . . . why? Why does it seem that the Democrat party is always so eager to turn over public policy questions to courts to decide? Why should the most democratic of our institutions so quickly differ to the least democratic body to resolve a process question?

Why could the Senate President not instead have shown a little political moxie, and told Senator Bryant that, insofar as the Senate is concerned, Bryant was not going to be permitted to further compromise its integrity, and that if he wanted to pursue some quixotic, if not desperate maneuver by asserting attorney-client privilege over budget committee papers that for the most part are not even drafted by attorneys, that he was free to do so on his own, but that the Senate leadership was not going to be further coaxed into acting as his enabler?

And the third strike is his latest action, outlined in a Mitch Maddux story in the Record on Sunday, in which Codey says he will use his prerogative as Senate President to prevent last second additions to the state budget. In a Press Release issued on Friday, after federal grand Jury subpoenas rained on the partisan legislative offices, Minority Leader Senator Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon) took the occasion to fire off a Release calling for

total transparency with regard to legislative additions to the annual state budget. The sponsor of each expenditure must be identified and the legislative addition must have a clearly stated public purpose.

Codey, obviously unwilling to reform the process in this way, simply announced that he will push through a Rule change that will prevent last second submission of expenditure changes in the budget. Sounds okay as far as it goes.

But the description of his proposal is very odd, and in some respects fails to address real transparency, which he insisted in the story was his primary concern. As stated therein,
Codey said his rule change -- which he has the power to invoke without the consent of the state Senate -- will require that any expenditures added to the governor's proposed budget be submitted 10 to 14 days before lawmakers vote on the package. The expenditures will then be listed for public inspection and discussed before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Well, is it 10 or is it 14? Who are they required to be submitted to to meet that timeline?

How likely is it that the members of the Senate will give the Senate President power to invoke a Rule without their consent? And what does that mean? What if he doesn’t invoke the rule? Would we then witness the usual budget free-for-all?

And what does it mean that the “expenditures will then be listed for public inspection” – how close to the vote? Two hours? One day? Three days? A week?

Finally, he says nothing about identifying the expenditure to the legislator, as Senator Lance’s proposal would require. That is what transparency is all about. No one can put an anonymous bill in the hopper today, so why not require any expenditure proposal to be identified with its proponent?

Codey is reeling from an accommodation made long ago in having put the wrong person in charge of budget and appropriations. And for the past three years the budget has been a mess.

Just as an example, during the time that he was both the acting Governor and Senate President, last-second expenditures in the new state budget, passed July 1, 2005, were added for such ”deserving” entities as $2 million dollars for a public municipal parking garage up in Hudson County (West New York), and an unexplained quarter of a million dollar unencumbered grant -- $250,000.00 to Lambertville, a town whose “up for election” Mayor just happened to be the spouse of former Acting Governor Codey’s then Deputy Chief of Staff.

As they say, "The apple never falls far from the tree." Or, is it, "Where there's smoke . . ."

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