TRENTON - It has been going on for years, and both Democrats and Republicans have done it.
Quietly stuffing money for pet projects - from a town flagpole to sidewalks to a hometown hospital - into the state budget at the last minute is a long-held tradition for the ruling party in Trenton.
But now, with federal investigators swarming the Statehouse and demanding answers about so-called Christmas tree items, legislative leaders are renewing vows to overhaul the process - or at least make it more transparent.
Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) last month announced a plan to open the last-minute grant-making process to public scrutiny. Yesterday, he said that if his proposal did not become law in time, he would impose the new process on the Senate for the coming budget talks, which will open when Gov. Corzine introduces his spending plan tomorrow.
Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) said he, too, was prepared to implement Codey's proposal immediately.
"It's essential we have as much transparency as possible if we want the public to have confidence in the budgeting process," Roberts said. "Whether we do it by law, by rule or by practice, we have to do it better this year."
He added: "Legislators have a right to fight for projects for their district, but they will have to do it in the open."
The renewed attention to openness in Trenton follows the news last week that U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie is investigating whether any lawmakers personally benefited from the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants slipped into the budget over the last three years. No other specifics could be determined.
Under Codey's proposal - which attempts to rein in a process in which grants are negotiated behind closed doors and without a paper trail - lawmakers would have to submit their requests in writing at least 14 days before a budget vote. The request would have to carry the legislator's name, a dollar amount, the name of the recipient, and any information supporting the need for the funding. It would also have to supply information on any perceived or potential conflicts for the lawmaker making the request - for example, whether the beneficiary employed the lawmaker.
The process would apply to all changes in the state budget. To circumvent the new rules and make last-minute amendments would require minority-party support.
Codey said he anticipated that the number of Christmas tree items - estimated at $200 million to $350 million last year, depending on whom you ask - would drop drastically as a result.
He said he had begun contemplating changes last summer, after members of the Republican minority accused Democrats of having what they said was an unusually egregious year for the last-minute grants.
Codey said the GOP criticism was "obviously hypocritical, because they did it when they were in power." But, he said, he and other Senate Democrats agreed that it was a good idea to "have an open dialogue on these things."
Codey said that many of the disputed grants went to worthy causes, including hospitals, and that part of his motivation for changing the process was to remove the negative stigma.
"We said, 'Let's make it transparent, put it out in the open,' " he said.
These days, Codey's proposal is taking on a whole new urgency.
On Friday, the U.S. Attorney's Office served subpoenas on the legislative leaders of both parties, as well as the headquarters of the Assembly and Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats, demanding records relating to the last-minute grants and potential conflicts by lawmakers. Authorities already had demanded documents from the Senate Democrats in the fall in an investigation that appears to have grown out of an ongoing federal criminal probe into State Sen. Wayne Bryant, a powerful Camden County Democrat.
A federal monitor appointed by Christie in September concluded that Bryant did "little to no work" in his $35,000-a-year job as "program support coordinator" at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. What Bryant was hired to do, the monitor concluded, was use his influence as chair of the powerful Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee to steer millions in extra state funding to the school. Bryant denied the allegations, but stepped down from the budget panel not long afterward.
Corzine joined several legislators yesterday in endorsing efforts to shed light on the grant-making process.
Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny (D., Hudson), the new budget committee chairman, said he was on board with what he called an effort to be "more organized and systematic."
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden), who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, said, "Anything we can do to make that process more transparent, I'm happy to participate in."
He said that Codey's proposal was a good starting point, but that "we have to all work together" to come up with a consensus on changes to the process.
Some Republicans said the changes wouldn't go far enough. Assembly Budget Officer Joseph Malone (R., Burlington) said he wanted a constitutional amendment to guarantee that a proposed budget be ready for public inspection a week before a vote.
"We need to stop the midnight madness," he said.