Panel approves nearly $740M in spending funded by pandemic windfalls

Committee members raise eyebrows at Treasury’s absence

By: - November 30, 2021 1:36 pm

GOP Sen. Steve Oroho abstained from voting on two of the three proposals, saying some projects had merit but he disapproved of the process by which they were chosen. (Courtesy of New Jersey Senate Democrats)

A bicameral panel approved nearly $740 million in spending using federal dollars and millions from a fund established to ease the state’s debt burden.

Gov. Phil Murphy last week submitted a series of spending proposals to the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, which must approve expenditures made using federal aid dollars provided under the American Rescue Plan and money from the New Jersey Debt Defeasance and Prevention Fund.

Two of the three proposals submitted by Murphy’s administration cleared the six-member budget panel with support from just its four Democratic members, while the third passed unanimously.

Sussex lawmakers Sen. Steve Oroho and Assemblyman Hal Wirths, the panel’s only Republican members, abstained citing uncertainty around how the Murphy administration chose the projects to be funded.

No representatives from the state Treasury spoke at the panel’s virtual meeting Tuesday morning. Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who has co-chaired the joint committee for 13 years, said the absence was the first he could recall since joining the panel.

“To have JBOC spend hundreds of millions of dollars with no comments is outrageous,” Wirths said. “You guys said you’ve never seen it. I’ve only been on it a couple years, but this is crazy. We had very little details on the spending as it is, and now to have Treasury not participate in this call is beyond outrageous.”

A spokesperson for the Treasury said the department’s officials were available to answer lawmakers’ inquiries but did not directly address criticisms over their absence at Tuesday’s hearing.

“The Treasury Department has answered questions and provided information to our Legislative partners throughout the ongoing process of allocating federal COVID relief funds,” they said. “We continue to maintain an open line of communication. Treasury remains ready to answer additional questions from the Legislature as the Administration and Legislature work together to support their shared priorities.”

The first proposal calls for $263 million in federal aid to be spent on a variety of programs, including hospital expansion, rental assistance, affordable housing development, and small business aid.

That plan includes spending for some items with no direct link to the pandemic, including $25 million for the recently announced Essex-Hudson Greenway project, which would create a walkable tract between Montclair and Jersey City.

Oroho said he could not support the plan without knowing whether other worthwhile programs were passed over, adding he doesn’t believe lawmakers or legislative staff have seen the criteria used to decide how the money should be spent.

“I’m sure that most of these projects — as has been said — have merit, but why some projects or some schools and not others?” Oroho said.

The governor’s spending proposal for the Debt Defeasance and Prevention Fund was more narrowly tailored and asked the committee to approve $435 million in capital costs related to projected costs for the New Jersey Wind Port and improvements to Rowan University’s veterinary and medical schools. The fund was created this year to pay down some of the state’s existing bond debt and fund capital projects in a way that saves on long-term borrowing costs.

A third proposal to appropriate $42.2 million to the Department of Environmental Protection won unanimous approval.

Most of that money, $40.3 million, is headed to the state’s Green Acres Program and will be used to purchase land for the Essex Hudson Greenway. The remaining $1.9 million will expand various existing DEP projects.

Even the panel’s Democratic members appeared galled by Treasury officials’ absence, taking up Republican calls for a more inclusive process for approving Debt Defeasance Fund and federal aid expenditures.

“There’s a lot of good initiatives here, but going forward we need a more comprehensive plan that needs to be done between the Legislature and the administration,” Sarlo said, later adding some of the projects approved Tuesday began as legislative initiatives, including some championed by Republican lawmakers.

The Tuesday meeting will likely be JBOC’s last until the start of the new legislative session on Jan. 11, meaning no new expenditures using federal dollars awarded to the state under the American Rescue Plan and no money from the Debt Defeasance and Prevention Fund will be approved until next year, at earliest.

Lawmakers already have items on their wishlists.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who is retiring from the Legislature at the end of the current session, said she hopes future appropriations will fund overhauls of beleaguered computer systems at the Motor Vehicle Commission and Department of Labor, where technical problems have delayed unemployment insurance payments at various stages of the pandemic.

“I think the Legislature needs to play a stronger role in that and I look forward to watching as we do that in the future,” she said.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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