The Murphy administration is asking lawmakers to approve expenditures of $252.6 million COVID relief funds from the federal American Rescue Plan, according to a letter dated Nov. 23.
All the spending must be cleared by the bipartisan Joint Budget Oversight Committee, which includes Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the state Senate and Assembly. The committee must meet within seven days.
As part of the June state budget agreement, Gov. Phil Murphy can spend $200 million of the $6.4 billion in COVID relief in increments of $10 million.
So far, he’s used those funds to add $10 million to a program that pays struggling restaurants to prepare meals for residents in need, and a $10 million pilot program under which the state subsidizes hiring bonuses and training wages in an effort to alleviate hiring shortages. Anything above that needs JBOC approval.
In signing the record $46.4 billion spending plan in June, Murphy approved plans to spend $500 million on rental assistance, $250 million in utility relief, $100 million in expanded child care so that more New Jerseyans can return to the workplace, $600 million over the next three years for adult special education services, and $180 million for HVAC improvements at schools.
The state’s three Level One Trauma Centers – University Hospital in Newark, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick and Cooper Medical Center in Camden – each got $150 million to bolster their public health capacity.
Murphy had the option to use the ARP funds to maintain the weekly $300 in supplemental unemployment relief going, but declined to do so, saying the state would burn through the cash too quickly.
The governor and Democratic legislative leaders also declined to use the funds to offset tax increases employers began paying this fall to replenish the state unemployment fund, which was drained during months of COVID-19 business closures.
Republicans criticized Murphy’s Nov. 23 request. “I’m sure the release of the proposal the day before Thanksgiving was an intentional attempt by the Murphy administration to avoid scrutiny,” Brad Schnure, who heads communications for the New Jersey Senate Republican’s office, wrote in an email.
Sen. Steven Oroho, R-24th District, one of the two GOP JBOC members, characterized the proposal as “grossly incomplete” and failing to “address key needs for New Jersey.”
While the funds can and should be used to “help workers and small businesses, support tenants and landlords, invest in infrastructure improvements, fix broken computer systems at unemployment and the [Motor Vehicle Commission], and prevent unnecessary tax increases on employers,” Oroho continued, “most of those important priorities still haven’t been addressed.”
Assembly Appropriations Chair Jon Burizchelli, who lost reelection bid earlier this month, said he felt that the few days lawmakers might have to review the spending proposal should be enough time. Still, he didn’t specify whether the timeline was enough for the general public to review the plans, saying “what is enough time for one person isn’t enough time for another person.”
Murphy’s office did not answer questions on the timing of the proposal’s release.
What’s being proposed
The plan earmarks $100 million for Hackensack University Medical Center “which was verified as a Level 1 trauma center in the fall,” to build out its health care infrastructure.
There would be $40 million to the Department of Community Affairs and the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency to “fill COVID-induced” supply chain gaps in affordable housing and community development projects.
Another $37.5 million is being proposed to help rent-relief applicants most at risk of eviction, and $25 million for the state to buy land in Essex and Hudson counties as part of a planned $65 million Greenway transportation corridor spanning the two counties.
Under the plan, the state would spend $20 million in COVID relief to help Inspira Health purchase Salem Medical Center, and $10 million to boost pedestrian and retail activities in urban areas with mass transit that have faced the worst of the pandemic recession, with the loss of commuters and their purchasing power. The New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority would jointly handle the funds.
Awards of $5 million each would go to RWJBarnabas Health and Rutgers University for behavioral health program that addresses needs stemming from the pandemic; the Wally Choice Community Center in Montclair’s Glenfield Park for pandemic-recovery educational and social services; and for a marketing program to “highlight the benefits of doing business in New Jersey” as the state charts its post-pandemic economic recovery.
Atlantic Health would get $3 million to modernize its emergency department at Morristown Medical Center to enhance its response to the pandemic and other infectious disease outbreaks.
The Alexander Hamilton Visitor and Education Center at the Great Falls of the Passaic River – a national park in Paterson – would get $2 million – while Vernon Township would get $100,000 for public health efforts related to environmental remediation..