Buried in N.J.’s Budget Cuts: a Break for a Billionaire

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THE NEW YORK TIMES

July 2, 2020

Developers have tried for decades to win approval for for-profit ventures within Liberty State Park, a 1,200-acre park in Jersey City, N.J., that faces Lower Manhattan. Credit...

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New Jersey lawmakers passed a stopgap three-month budget this week that included $4 billion in cuts.

The temporary spending plan was described in news releases as “painful,” “austere” and “bare bones,” a bitter but necessary pill to offset the devastating toll the coronavirus has taken on the state’s finances.

It was fast-tracked to meet Wednesday's deadline, leaving watchdogs and advocacy organizations largely in the dark about key details during a time when most traditional lobbying and legislative activities at the State House have been sidelined by the virus.

Somewhere along the way a one-paragraph clause was quietly inserted.

The wording could clear the way for private development in Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., a crown jewel of the park system that has been eyed for decades by developers. Liberty National, an exclusive private golf club where the original initiation fee was about half a million dollars, has been pressing for years to expand into a nearby section of the park.

Owners of the golf course, which offers spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, want to create three new holes at Caven Point, a 22-acre outcropping of parkland that has been designated a migratory bird habitat.

Liberty National officials have said the extra space would help the club compete for future PGA Tour events, which they say generate significant revenue for the city and state.

The budget provision, buried on page 95 of the 111-page document, encourages private ventures at any state park by requiring the Department of Environmental Protection, by Sept. 1, to solicit bids from interested developers to help pay for maintenance and improvements.

Key lawmakers said they were blindsided by the maneuver that would likely reward the wealthy at a time when the coronavirus is exposing the nation’s gaping economic and racial divide.

An assemblyman from Jersey City, Raj Mukherji, said inserting the privatization clause in the midst of a pandemic that has led more than one million New Jersey residents to apply for unemployment benefits was especially troubling.

“The notion that I have constituents whose unemployment claims haven’t been paid since March and who can’t pay for groceries — who would have their public parkland taken away at this moment — stinks,” said Mr. Mukherji, a Democrat. He said he was unaware of the privatization provision when he voted to approve the budget bill.

The Assembly and Senate passed the spending plan on Monday, and Gov. Philip D. Murphy signed it into law on Tuesday, over the objection of Jersey City’s mayor, Steven M. Fulop, and several lawmakers.

“It was put in there at the last minute and rammed through,” Mr. Fulop said.

Mr. Murphy’s office released a statement indicating that the governor did “not intend” to solicit bids from private developers for Liberty State Park. A spokesman for Liberty National, Chris Donnelly, could not be reached for comment.

“The governor’s office and Department of Environmental Protection will work together to evaluate all options and ensure that New Jersey’s parks remain an accessible resource for residents,” a spokeswoman, Alexandra Altman, said in a statement.

She also noted that the language in the bill “does not specifically refer to Liberty State Park.”

The privatization amendment was not listed among the changes included in a written briefing of the bill some lawmakers were given before the vote, according to a legislative official. How the provision was added and by whom could not be determined.

Mr. Murphy’s office released a statement indicating that the governor did “not intend” to solicit bids from private developers for Liberty State Park. A spokesman for Liberty National, Chris Donnelly, could not be reached for comment.

“The governor’s office and Department of Environmental Protection will work together to evaluate all options and ensure that New Jersey’s parks remain an accessible resource for residents,” a spokeswoman, Alexandra Altman, said in a statement.

She also noted that the language in the bill “does not specifically refer to Liberty State Park.”

The privatization amendment was not listed among the changes included in a written briefing of the bill some lawmakers were given before the vote, according to a legislative official. How the provision was added and by whom could not be determined.

An official in the governor’s office said a veto would have delayed and possibly derailed the stopgap budget, which was due by July 1.

Sen. Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said there are unmet environmental safety and financial needs within the state parks.

“Allowing the governor’s administration to explore and consider alternative revenue sources to meet these needs while protecting the environment is reasonable and responsible,” Mr. Sarlo said in a statement.

Everything within the bill, he added, “was agreed to by the legislative and executive branches and was public for anyone to read a day prior to its consideration.”

Liberty National is represented by Eric Shuffler, a lobbyist who has worked for two New Jersey governors and who served on Mr. Murphy’s transition team.

Mr. Shuffler’s firm, River Crossing Strategy Group, recently hired Kevin McCabe, the powerful Democratic chairman of Middlesex County, who is on the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and was the state’s former labor commissioner.

Mr. Shuffler declined to comment.

Because of the pandemic, New Jersey delayed final approval of its fiscal-year budget by three months; the bill approved Tuesday allocates spending through September. It does not raise taxes, but it does call for reduced funding in many departments, including K-12 education, agriculture and a tax rebate program for seniors.

Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a watchdog group, said the entire budget process was rushed, leaving the public unable to figure out how much had been cut from specific programs.

“It’s a shocking amount of lack of transparency. It’s a joke of a process,” Mr. McKoy said. “Legislators didn’t know what was in it. Staff members didn’t know what was in it.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which was among the first groups to raise the alarm about the D.E.P. wording after the budget bill passed, said that while the clause was perhaps written with Liberty State Park in mind, it also had the power to affect other state parks.

“These parks are owned by the public, for the public and entrusted with our government,” Mr. Tittel said in a statement. “Commercialization of our parkland will mean the loss of public access to parks and historic sites.”

 

 

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