Murphy commits federal COVID funds to rural internet access

Daniel J. Munoz//May 24, 2021

Murphy commits federal COVID funds to rural internet access

Daniel J. Munoz//May 24, 2021

Gov. Phil Murphy said May 21 that he plans to use $190 million in federal funds to ramp up internet access for businesses, and low- and moderate-income residents in rural stretches of the state.

The funds will come out of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed in March, and according to the governor’s office are separate from the $6.4 billion the state is getting under the federal rescue package.

“Ensuring the most hard to reach areas of New Jersey have access to high speed Internet is an absolute necessity, especially in light of the last year” reads a statement from Joe Fiordaliso, head of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, whose agency would oversee such efforts.

“It is crucial that we close the digital divide so our schoolchildren and businesses have the same educational and economic advantages regardless of where they are located,” he added.

State officials contend that residents and businesses lack access not just to devices, but those that can provide high-speed internet comparable with urban and suburban communities.

Murphy’s office estimated that this has created a so-called “digital divide,” which was laid bare during the COVID-19 pandemic and meant struggles for businesses to switch to e-commerce, and for residents to transition to remote work and learning.

A bill Murphy vetoed and sent back to the state Legislature – Assembly Bill 850 – would create a state commission to study broadband access within the NJBPU. Lawmakers signed onto the governor’s conditional veto in March and sent the bill back to Murphy’s desk.

The matter on how to use federal COVID-relief funds has remained a touchy subject between the governor’s office and state lawmakers.

Many Republicans have accused Murphy of hoarding state funds provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, and in lacking transparency on how the money is spent.

Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature are pushing for a greater say over how the ARP money is spent, and to that end this proposal has the sign-off from several lawmakers from both major parties.

Last week, New Jersey State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio revealed to lawmakers that the state overnight received nearly all the $6.4 billion under the Biden rescue plan. Lawmakers questioned why they were kept out of the loop with that development.

“It is imperative the spending in conjunction with the Legislature, Senate Budget Chair Paul Sarlo, D-36th District said in a statement last week following the news from the state Treasury.