By Briana Vannozzi
Critics of the governor’s proposed budget are wondering if his administration has a crystal ball able to predict next year’s winter weather or if it’s just poor fiscal planning resulting in both the transportation and snow removal budgets being slashed.
“What it really is emblematic of is the governor’s pattern over the last five and a half years of ignoring facts to construct a narrative that works for him politically,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, chair of the Transportation Committee.
The proposed budget calls for a $44 million cut to winter operations and snow removal. That’s a difference of nearly 50 percent from the current fiscal year. The Department of Transportation will also take a big hit under the proposed spending, from nearly $1.5 billion down to just under $1.3 billion. That’s a nearly 8.5 percent drop.
The Treasury Department today told NJTV News, “We typically pay for most of the snow removal through a supplemental appropriation to reimburse DOT for snow removal costs. That’s what happened last year and in previous years when we have had harsh winters. So, the decrease everyone is seeing actually reflects the fact that we had a supplemental appropriation in fiscal year 2015.”
They go on to say that appropriation does not continue for this year.
The actual amount allocated for snow removal in budgets going back to 2008 is only about $10 million, according to both the Treasury and Transportation Departments, which means funding for snow removal and winter emergencies typically come from supplemental funds — because they say accurately predicting the weather and the money needed is nearly impossible.
“It makes the budget document that much less meaningful. If you have a budget document that says we’re only going to spend this amount of money on snow removal but your real intention is to spend more, well if you’re going to be honest about your budgeting priorities, well then you ought to put the number in you’re planning on spending and not resorting to gimmickry saying well that’s OK because we’ll find it elsewhere. What that suggests is that elsewhere in the budget there’s more money then is needed,” Wisniewski said.
A review of previous years’ winter weather spending shows it far surpasses the amounts allocated.
As of today, about $91.6 million has been spent for the current fiscal year. That number ballooned in 2013-2014 — one of the state’s harshest winters on record at nearly $130 million. It was $62.5 million for the year prior. It was $20.7 million in 2011-2012 and $56 million in 2010-2011.
The state DOT defended the budget: “Safety is NJDOT’s top priority and the department will spend whatever is necessary to keep state highways clear and safe for the public. The commissioner has always, and will continue to have the final say in determining what is spent to do the job.”
But these cuts all depend on whether or not the Legislature approves the budget — an item that’s become increasingly difficult to balance.