Despite Commitment to Transparency, Murphy Less Than Open About COVID-19 Spending

COLLEEN O'DEA | JULY 20, 2020 

NJ Spotlight

Gov. Phil Murphy at a briefing on the coronavirus

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Today, it is virtually impossible for any member of the public — and even some members of the New Jersey Legislature — to know how or even if the state is spending more than $5 billion received so far from the federal government to deal with COVID-19.

To address this, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Friday that he is creating a disaster recovery office and compliance task force to oversee all funding and ensure it is spent properly. There will also be a website where the public can track that money. That is welcome news for transparency advocates and lawmakers who say they have been unable to get information about pandemic relief from the governor’s office.

But some complain it’s too late in coming.

“We can’t get any information on CARES Act funding,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex), the Assembly Republicans’ budget officer, referring to the federal stimulus bill that gave $2.4 billion to the state for discretionary virus-related spending.

Trying to follow the money

With Congress having passed several relief bills, it is hard to keep track of the money the state has received.

While not currently posted publicly, the state Treasury provided a spreadsheet that spells out the origins of the $5.3 billion received to date from about 50 programs. The largest single amount by far comes from the CARES Coronavirus Relief Fund. The spreadsheet also lists $750 million from FEMA to the state police and the Office of Emergency Management, which can be used for a host of pandemic-related spending. This includes money for personal protective equipment, extra staff hours and similar spending. There’s also $614 million to the Department of Health for testing, contact tracing and “containment measures.”

Most of the rest is earmarked for various purposes, including a temporary increase in Medicaid funding ($670 million), state grants to school districts for emergency needs ($310 million) and emergency food assistance to children and families ($229 million from a number of programs).

But for the most part, funding discussions center on the $2.4 billion in the Coronavirus Relief Fund created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Signed into law in late March, it provides $2.2 trillion in economic stimulus and assistance to individuals, businesses and state and local governments across the United States.

Looking for clarity on state spending

How the administration has spent the money it has gotten so far is unclear. More than four months into the pandemic, the administration currently has no central source for income and spending data related to COVID-19. Murphy’s answer,  announced Friday, is that the state plans to set up a website to “track” the progress of the new Governor’s Disaster Recovery Office that will coordinate all recovery programs funded through federal sources.

Former Gov. Chris Christie, a two-term Republican, created a similar office after Superstorm Sandy, as well as a Sandy Recovery Program Dashboard that showed how the state allocated and spent $4.2 billion in federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Funds.

And former Gov. Jon Corzine, a one-term Democrat, launched a website to provide information on New Jersey’s share of economic stimulus funds in response to the Great Recession under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Corzine announced this transparency effort less than a month after former President Barack Obama signed ARRA into law on February 17, 2009.

Under the executive order Murphy signed last Friday, the new disaster recovery office, which will essentially replace the Sandy recovery and rebuilding office, has 90 days to set up the website. That means it could be mid-October before the public gets to see how the state is spending federal relief aid.

Attempts by NJ Spotlight to get greater detail about federal pandemic-related spending from administration officials last week were mostly greeted by responses that a public records request must be filed before information will be released or to wait for future announcements.

“As the governor announced, today there will be a website and dashboard that outlines the spending plan,” Murphy spokeswoman Alexandra Altman wrote in an email Friday afternoon.

Last week, during a news conference, Murphy bristled at a reporter’s suggestion that the administration is not being transparent and said it is “overwhelmed” by OPRA requests.

New Jersey, not the Soviet Union

“If you were to replay a tape of your last question, you could have put that into Soviet Union 1975,” Murphy told the reporter. “It sounds like we don’t show anything. I mean, we take all that stuff seriously …We do believe in transparency. We take every one of these requests for information seriously, one at a time … We’ve got a lot more demand for that sort of information than we have the ability and manpower to deliver it on a timely basis. But that doesn’t mean we’ve changed our stripes in terms of our belief in transparency and good government and governance.”

Requests for information to date by NJ Spotlight have either been answered weeks later than the deadlines written into the state’s Open Public Records Act or denied because they were considered “deliberative” and thus exempt from the law. Other reporters have received outright denials of information requests, including on the grounds that providing the information could compromise security. Lawmakers passed and Murphy signed earlier this year a law giving records custodians more leeway to answer OPRA requests during the current state of emergency.

Sweeney wants answers

A number of lawmakers, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), have complained that Murphy is not providing them with information, even when they have requested it.

“This administration has operated in a bubble,” said Republican Sen. Anthony M. Bucco (R-Morris). “Nothing comes out of that bubble, not to the Legislature, not to the press. It’s not the way government is set up to run. I’ve been in the Legislature going on 11 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

An examination of public notices and press releases provides some indication of how the administration has spent a small amount of funding so far — about $406 million — though it’s likely more that has been spent and not disclosed.

Known spending includes $143 million in food assistance, with another $246 million slated to be spent soon. The state police and Office of Emergency Management have spent at least  $125 million through April 29 on PPE and similar items, according to a press release from U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez. The New Jersey State Police told NJ Spotlight last Friday that it would not consider a request for an update on that spending without an OPRA request.

As far as money coming specifically from the CARES Act general funding is concerned, the only way to know what is being spent to date is by tracking Murphy’s announcements, which include $50 million for small business grants and loans and up to $50 million — along with another $10 million from funding targeted for school relief — to help schools improve internet connectivity and provide digital devices to all students who need them.

Where’s the plan?

The administration does have a plan for spending all $2.4 billion of this general funding, but it is little known outside the State House. Near the end of a May 22 report from the Treasurer on the state’s financial situation is a two-page list of Murphy’s plan.

The largest spending proposal totals $600 million for salaries, health benefits and operations, such as contact tracers and other staff working in public health, public safety and human services. Another $400 million would help fund reopening efforts for K-12 school districts, with $300 million earmarked to help colleges with efforts involving distance learning, student room and board refunds and cleaning and disinfection protocols. The state also plans to spend $300 million on social services and health care for vulnerable populations, including those with substance abuse and mental health needs, and on food aid and child care.

But the document cautions that this proposal is a work in progress and could change, including, perhaps, if the state gets the OK to use CARES Act funding to make up for lost sales, business and income tax revenues.

“The plan allocation is subject to future statutes that modify the CARES Act, new federal appropriations, confirmation of actual expenditures incurred, the identification of additional unmet COVID-19 needs, and new guidance from the U.S. Treasury,” states an introduction to the plan. “Because additional federal funds may become available to cover certain COVID-19 expenses identified below, and because federal guidance on CRF eligible expenses continues to be refined, the below material should only be read as a framework for the Administration’s plans, and does not reflect the final allocation or distribution of CRF funds.”

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