The governors of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are pressing the Trump administration for $100 billion in federal aid to help finance regional efforts against the coronavirus and to plug gaping holes in their respective state budgets.
“We’re at the front lines with the workers who are going through hell right now, with the small businesses,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at his daily coronavirus press briefing, this time at the state’s first mass testing site at Bergen Community College, on March 20.
Murphy also said he would issue an order in the next 24 hours requirng residents to stay in their homes, similar to actions taken by other jurisdictions.
The move, while not detailed on March 20, would entail the closure of all non-essential business “to further tighten the screws in terms of the social distancing.”
“You’ll hear it here first: Nonessential businesses are going to be shut down,” the governor said. “Gatherings of any sort — I’m not sure if we’re going to be to 10 people or if we’re going to zero and just eliminate any gatherings. Those are the sort of steps we’re looking at.”
New Jersey has rolled out a variety of emergency efforts, which are “wildly expensive,” Murphy added, and will cost “many hundreds of millions of dollars over the next short period of time.”
“We’re going to need a bigger boat. We’re going to need a lot more cash to keep doing what we’re doing.”
As of Friday afternoon, the virus infected 890 New Jersey residents and claimed 11 lives, the vast majority in North and Central Jersey, according to State Health Commissioner Judith Persichili.
The mass closure of businesses in the state – all part of an effort to promote the kind of social distancing which proponents argue can starve the virus of any chances to spread to new hosts – has decimated billions of dollars in taxes which the state depends on for its budget.
The money the four states are seeking is known as federal block grants, which have far more flexibility than aid-specific federal assistance in how they can be used. And, without which “states may be left with no choice but to lay off thousands of employees, be unable to pay employees who are providing life-sustaining services, slash funding for education and transportation, and substantially reduce critical service.
“Without this funding, we will be forced to make incredibly difficult choices in light of our new fiscal reality. We share your deep concern for the economic security of all of our residents,” the letter adds. “But make no mistake: if states do not receive immediate financial support with sufficient flexibility to address our unique fiscal challenges, the principal impact will be borne by the millions of Americans who reside in our state.”
“Our transportation systems are seeing their ridership decimated, resulting in several billions of dollars of lost fare revenues. Our unemployment systems are flooded with new applicants,” reads the letter jointly signed by Murphy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
“Our social services are providing life-saving support for thousands of unanticipated participants, and our childcare infrastructure needs to be intact to ensure frontline workers are available during this crisis,” the letter continues. “Our small businesses need additional support to rebound from the economic impact of temporary closures.”
The state’s congressional delegation has been supportive of New Jersey’s bid for more federal aid, much to the delight of the Murphy administration and leadership in the state Legislature.
‘Do the best you can’
A “wave” of bills – as described by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, – are being rushed through the state Legislature to provide economic relief for businesses, be it through expanded unemployment, deferrals and holidays on different taxes, and state financing proposals.
“There’s just a whole lot of things we don’t know right now until we sit down with the governor, the speaker and myself and come up with a game plan,” Sweeney told reporters at a telephone press conference following a Senate voting session on Thursday. “We’re in uncharted waters.”
Sweeney added that the administration and lawmakers might have to “revamp” the budget or consider an entirely new spending plan.
Murphy and top officials met with U.S. President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other state governors via video-conference on Thursday, where he made the push for block grant aid.
“[F]lexible block grants. Those will be important to us to allow us to continue to serve our people,” Murphy said, according to White House transcripts.
“Phil, try — try what you can. Do the best you can to get what you can actually get,” the president responded. “And we’re also having a lot of things produced that, frankly, nobody has ever seen anything like this before. But do the best you can.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:51 p.m. EST on March 20, 2020 to include additional details and excerpts from the joint letter from the governors of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania requesting federal aid. It was also updated to include additional information from Gov. Phil Murphy’s Friday press conference, and remarks from Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
This story was also updated at 5:15 p.m. EST on March 20, 2020 to add Murphy’s comments about a forthcoming executive order.