Gov. Murphy’s budget, now before the state legislature, includes initiatives to create a more resilient, equitable and healthier state. The Quality Institute supports the goals of the governor’s budget. We have unprecedented opportunities now, especially with an expected $9 billion coming to state and local governments through the federal American Rescue Plan. We must not squander this moment by failing to adequately support the government infrastructure needed to accomplish the vision we set out to achieve.
As the budget hearing process begins, I urge our state legislators and elected officials to engage in a budget process that ultimately will improve the ability of state officials to implement new and existing initiatives. As someone who has worked in both the state legislature and as a state regulator, I have seen valuable new laws fail in the real world because state departments do not possess the resources to implement them. These systemic shortcomings in our state government transcend political parties and administrations.
In the coming weeks, State legislators will hold public budget hearings and ask questions of leadership from each state agency. I’m suggesting three foundational questions to ask at each hearing:
- Are there current core responsibilities of your agency that you cannot carry out fully or in a timely way because you lack the staff, resources, and technology you need?
- Are there existing laws (state or federal) that you have been unable to enforce or implement because you don’t have the staff, resources, or technology?
- What staff positions, resources, and technology do you need to successfully fulfill your core mission and run your programs?
Adding new responsibilities to departments without the resources to fulfill their current ones is not a sensible way forward. It diminishes state oversight of important programs, constrains our economic growth, and decreases the public’s faith in government.
State agencies shoulder enormous responsibilities, and, when they function at their best, can instill public confidence in good government. The Office of the Attorney General, Division of Consumer Affairs, Office of the Treasurer, Division of Pension and Benefits (DPB) and the Departments of Health, Banking and Insurance, Children and Families, and Human Services all have critical roles to play in keeping health care in New Jersey safe and of high quality. These departments are responsible for everything from licensing providers and facilities, investigating medical mistakes, ensuring people have access to health care, preventing waste and fraud, and making sure that the services taxpayers support are delivered efficiently and effectively.
While staffing at many state departments has declined through the years, their programmatic and oversight responsibilities have increased. These departments face large personnel shortfalls, yet are being asked to address an ever-increasing number of oversight responsibilities. Examples of this can be found throughout state government, Human Services, for instance, administers New Jersey’s FamilyCare program, which in FY2020 had an annual state budget of $6.6 billion and accounted for 17 percent of the state’s budget. FamilyCare enrollment is projected to increase by 16 percent from FY2020 to nearly two million enrollees. Yet, the department’s staffing levels, dedicated resources and technology capabilities have not kept pace. Similarly, DPB is one of the largest public health benefits purchasers in the country, but it runs with a skeleton staff compared to others of its size while controlling over $7 billion and covering 820,000 lives. Moreover, both the Division of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Health need more staff and improved technology to process, review, and issue professional and facility licenses in a timely way, as well as to conduct and publicly report on inspections — all critical to increasing the supply of health care services while ensuring safety. In short, we need to match resources with programmatic priorities.
I encourage everyone to weigh in on the above three questions and propose solutions that address the identified agency needs. Although solutions may include hiring new staff, they may also include eliminating obsolete or no longer important programs or responsibilities, shifting responsibilities to agencies that are better equipped to handle them, bringing in retired workers or temporary contractors to clean up backlogs, or partnering with other states or private entities. Let’s ask the right questions and work together on developing the best solutions.
Our state has many needs. If we want to achieve the goals set forth in Gov. Murphy’s budget, we must take the time to ask and answer the hard questions about how we will get there.