Last summer I had the experience of learning how cost-prohibitive it is to obtain local budget records for Woodbridge, New Jersey.
Only the current year budget is online. Previous year budgets were not available electronically. So I went to City Hall expecting they would be available to the public. Instead, I was asked to file an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with no guarantee the request would be fulfilled.
The costs were jaw-dropping. The first 10 pages cost 75 cents. Pages 11-20 dropped to 50 cents a page. And for each page thereafter the cost was 25 cents.
For 10 years of municipal budgets I would be charged roughly $242.50.
Undeterred, I went across the street to the Woodbridge Public Library. The librarians were incredibly helpful. They carted forty years of budgets to my table. And, told me if I called ahead they would have them ready should I want to do future research.
I spent about an hour copying at fifteen cents a page. Turns out, I only needed five pages from each document. (Something I could not have specified through an OPRA. In order to know what pages I needed I had to look at the documents first.)
I spent $30 for 40 years of specific budget data.
A New Jersey court has ruled that the state should reduce copying fees at state agencies. It seems my complaint is shared by good government groups and many New Jersey residents.
While reducing copying fees grants greater accessibility to public records, why not go a step further and put more online? Is it that costly for New Jersey’s local governments to keep a record of budget data on their websites? In the time it took to photocopy 40 years of budgets the pages could have been scanned into a computer.
New Jersey’s $29 billion budget for FY 2010 is now law. Taxes have been raised on cigarettes, wine, and liquor. And there is a new tax rate of 10.25 percent on those earning over $400,000 (the ever-expanding and misnamed “millionaire’s tax” introduced by Governor McGreevey in 2004 was aimed at those earning over $500 million). In addition to the federal bailout, New Jersey managed to get a $2.1 billion line of credit from J.P. Morgan Chase early last month.If the legislature spends it all, they’ll have to tack on $18 million in interest payments.
There will be no property tax rebates for those earning over $75,000 (excepting the elderly and disabled).
There are no layoffs for union-represented public employees. Spending will be increased in public schools, college tuition aid, and on Family Care health coverage.
When New Jersey’s Governor Corzine released the FY 2010 budget last month, it showed a surplus by $500 million, through a combination of cuts, tax increases, and stimulus funds.
But yesterday the Office of Legislative Services has issued an update, which finds that the budget runs a $100 million deficit.
Revenue projections, the OLS suggests, were too rosy in the FY 2010 budget proposal. This suggests questions about the fungibility of the stimulus finds: It may be that the governor can find the money by pulling money out of education increases.
Further tax hikes and pension holidays are the last thing the state should do. More cuts are the way to go, but given recent history, its an open question: Will states be asking for a second bailout?