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Budget Process Transparency a Racial Justice Issue, New Jersey Shows

State budgets can play an enormous role in improving the daily lives and futures of families and communities and be a powerful tool for advancing racial equity. These equitable outcomes require a process that’s inclusive, not opaque like the way New Jersey recently passed its budget, shutting out diverse voices and thereby missing some opportunities for key community investment.

New Jersey advocates across the political spectrum criticized the approach to the state’s new $46.4 billion budget, which was negotiated behind closed doors by the governor and Senate and House leaders — three white men — and then whisked through the legislature with virtually no debate on how to spend the state’s $10 billion surplus. The Senate Budget Committee passed the 280-page budget a mere 11 minutes after the bill text was shared publicly.

Most saliently, a group of Black leaders noted how the process reflected, ignored, and reinforced systemic racism, stating that the process “largely shut out the voices of New Jersey’s Black and Brown communities and was instead led by New Jersey’s most powerful elected officials, each of whom are white men.”

Every citizen has a fundamental right to have their voice heard on public policy issues that affect their communities. For centuries, Black and brown New Jerseyans — like their counterparts in most other states — were systematically excluded from public debates on critical questions like who should pay taxes and how tax dollars should be spent.

That means New Jersey, and many other states, adopted many long-standing policies – such as an inequitable school finance system heavily reliant on property taxes — in a culture in which the belief that white people are inherently superior to people of other racial groups was widely accepted and sometimes openly expressed. It took a long time for Black people to gain any representation in New Jersey politics; the state didn’t elect its first Black state legislator until 1920 and has never had a Black governor.

The historical and ongoing limits to equitable representation among elected officials make it all the more important that major policy proposals receive a full, public vetting before enactment. Full citizen engagement not only is the right thing to do but can result in better decisions, as lawmakers hear from the communities affected by their choices.

New Jersey’s legislative leaders have responded to this criticism, in part, by pointing to budget elements that would reduce racial disparities in the state. Indeed, the new budget includes provisions in areas like education, health, and income supports that will reduce racial wealth gaps and broaden economic opportunity. But it misses other opportunities to do so, including to help certain immigrants and address long-standing structural deficiencies in education and infrastructure, particularly after federal aid the state has gotten is gone.

New Jersey and other states should do much more to make their budget process transparent and inclusive. The state could require making the budget proposal available for public review a certain amount of time before it can be voted on, and establish a rule guaranteeing a set number of days’ debate on each year’s enacted budget. The state’s political leadership also could structure budget negotiations to give more legislators meaningful roles in deliberations.

Even those steps would be just a start. As New Jersey Policy Perspective detailed earlier this year, New Jersey (like many others states) could do far more to communicate publicly the implications of budget decisions. Among the recommendations: better revenue forecasting and making budget documents available in real time and in an easily searchable format.

In New Jersey and in other states, historically excluded communities have a right to expect both full participation in democratic processes and budget decisions that begin to dismantle long-standing barriers to economic and social inclusion.