With little public detail, NJ approves latest pandemic-relief spending

JOHN REITMEYER, BUDGET/FINANCE WRITER | DECEMBER 1, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

New Jersey State House, Trenton

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The latest plan for spending some of New Jersey’s remaining federal pandemic aid allocates more funding for hospitals and eviction-prevention efforts while also underwriting several other initiatives, including land preservation and redevelopment programs.

Funding is also set aside for community center projects in Montclair and Pennsauken, according to a proposal that was approved by a special legislative budget panel on Tuesday.

A memo detailing the overall $262 million spending plan was first sent to lawmakers by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration last week, just before the Thanksgiving holiday. And it took majority Democrats less than 30 minutes to give their final approval on Tuesday, with one key lawmaker suggesting many of the line items came directly from the Legislature.

Republicans on the panel refused to give their approval, saying they should have been given more information about the individual items and how they were moved to the front of the line for funding.

“Many of these projects are very good, (but) I have no criteria by which to evaluate whether some other, more important project is being pushed aside,” said Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex).

Other major spending

Meanwhile, the same committee also approved on Tuesday a total of $435 million in state spending on several large-scale projects that would normally be funded with long-term debt. They include a wind port in Salem County and the expansion of a medical school at Rowan University.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat, and Democratic legislative leaders have portrayed the combined nearly $700 million in spending advanced on Tuesday as putting the state in a strong position to recover from the still-ongoing health crisis.

In all, New Jersey received in May more than $6 billion in aid from the overall $2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.

Of that sum, roughly a third was already allocated for specific purposes by Murphy and lawmakers as part of the annual budget process in late June. These allocations include $500 million for rental assistance; $450 million for Level I trauma centers; $250 million for utility-bill assistance, and $100 million for a child-care revitalization fund, among others.

The spending plan that was approved on Tuesday earmarks $262.6 million in additional federal aid dollars, according to the memo sent to lawmakers last week.

In line for funds

The projects now in line for the funding include $100 million for Hackensack University Medical Center; $40 million to support affordable housing; $37.5 million for eviction prevention, and $25 million for a “greenway acquisition” in Hudson and Essex counties. There is also $20 million set aside for the acquisition of Salem Medical Center by Inspira Health; $10 million for commuter hub redevelopment; $10 million for the Pennsauken Community Center; $5 million for RWJ Barnabas Health behavioral health programs, and $5 million for the Wally Choice Community Center in Montclair.

The plan also earmarks $5 million for a marketing campaign to “highlight the benefits of doing business in New Jersey as the State works to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic,” according to the memo.

And it sets aside $3 million for modernizing Morristown Medical Center; $2 million for the Alexander Hamilton Visitor and Education Center at the Great Falls in Paterson, and $100,000 for public health efforts in Vernon Township.

Earlier this year, the Murphy administration held a series of invite-only forums to discuss potential uses of the state’s remaining federal aid dollars. The administration has until the end of 2024 to fully obligate all that federal aid.

The memo detailing the new spending proposals included a nutshell description of each of the 13 individual line items. But no one from the administration was available to answer questions from lawmakers during Tuesday’s hearing, something that raised eyebrows among both Democrats and Republicans who serve on the panel.

The missing details?

A spokeswoman from the Department of Treasury later told NJ Spotlight News that the department has previously answered questions and provided information to lawmakers.

“Treasury remains ready to answer additional questions from the Legislature as the Administration and Legislature work together to support their shared priorities,” said spokeswoman Danielle Currie.

Still, the memo sent to lawmakers last week did not say whether any competitive process was used to select the items put before the members of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Oversight Committee on Tuesday.

Republicans have previously called for the administration to show more urgency in using the federal dollars and have identified things like business-assistance programs as their top concerns. They’ve also suggested the federal funding should be used to help state agencies that struggled to deliver services during the height of the pandemic, such as the Department of Labor and the Motor Vehicle Commission.

On Tuesday, the panel’s two GOP members cited concerns about transparency as they abstained from voting on the administration’s latest spending proposals.

‘Beyond outrageous’

“There are certain things that are no-brainers to be spending this money on and that are being completely neglected,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex).

“While there may be merit in here, I don’t have the documents to make me feel comfortable backing them,” he said.

Wirths also said it was “beyond outrageous” that no one from the administration attended the meeting to field questions when millions of dollars in spending were being put up for approval.

But moments later, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) suggested many of the line items in the new spending plan have been discussed as priorities by lawmakers in recent months.

“A lot of these started with members of the Legislature, in all fairness to the administration on that end,” Sarlo said.

Meanwhile, the $435 million in state spending that was also approved by the legislative panel on Tuesday will come out of a nearly $4 billion pool of money that lawmakers set aside in late June for the specific purpose of saving money on long-term debt costs, according to documents shared with lawmakers ahead of the meeting.

Transparency concerns

Those projects include $265 million for the wind port in Salem County; $75 million for the Rowan University School of Veterinary Medicine; $45 million for state Department of Transportation dredging; $35 million for the South Jersey Port Corporation, and $15 million for the expansion of Rowan University’s Cooper Medical School.

“This approach is a very prudent one because it will save money over the long haul,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester).

Lawmakers established the nearly $4 billion debt defeasance and prevention fund less than a year after they faced criticism for voting amid the pandemic to authorize the Murphy administration to borrow roughly $4 billion without voter approval to offset projected revenue losses that never fully materialized.

Both Oroho and Wirths cited transparency concerns as they also abstained from voting on the debt-relief spending on Tuesday.

Afterward, Murphy spokesman Darryl Isherwood said, “There is no precedent for JBOC votes on the American Rescue Plan or Debt Defeasance and Prevention Fund money.”

“The administration discussed these projects with relevant legislators in advance, and we will work with leadership to adjust the process based on today’s feedback,” Isherwood said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-01 03:09:00 -0800