When this pandemic crushed New Jersey’s economy, it seemed obvious that the state would need to borrow money to survive it, and reasonable to spread the pain across at least the next few years as we pay it back. If I lost my job, I might do the same.
So, it struck me as nuts, at first, when Republicans filed suit to block Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to borrow up to $10 billion. They don’t have a better plan, so I dismissed it as a spitball from the cheap seats in the run-up to next year’s election.
But now I’m scared. Because the state Supreme Court just ripped the mask off this thing, asking a series of shrewd questions at a hearing on Wednesday that revealed the beast underneath.
This is not just about coping with the pandemic. Murphy is using the pandemic to claim new authority to spend borrowed money on anything he wants, leaving the bill to his successors. The design of this thing is badly flawed, and our best hope now is that the Court rides to the rescue by putting up some boundaries.
My moment of clarity came 1 hour and 58 minutes into the hearing when Chief Justice Stuart Rabner pressed Murphy’s attorney to describe what type of spending might be justified, on an emergency basis, with the borrowed funds.
“Could the money be used to subsidize a sports arena to the tune of $1 billion?” Rabner asked.
“Yes, your honor,” said the state’s lawyer, Jane Reilly. “If the Legislature, who has a wider view than I do of the economic needs of the state and the best means to remediate that, if they were able to come up with an explanation of why the sports arena was necessary to meet the fiscal emergency the pandemic caused, then yes, that would be acceptable.”