Legislative approval of federal aid spending should continue, top Democrat says

By: - April 6, 2022 6:49 am

Sen. Paul Sarlo told the administration Tuesday he wants language in the budget requiring lawmaker approval for some federal aid spending. (Courtesy of the New Jersey Legislature)

A second legislator expressed concern Tuesday that the administration’s budget plan does not give lawmakers approval over how to spend most of the $3 billion-plus in federal aid the state has not spent yet.

Sen. Paul Sarlo, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, told the state treasurer he wants this year’s budget to include language that mirrors an agreement legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy reached last year that requires the bicameral Joint Budget Oversight Committee to approve expenditures using more than $10 million in federal dollars.

That provision is absent in proposed budget language recently released by the administration.

“I’m pretty confident that’s a non-negotiable item and will have to be put in before we go any further,” said Sarlo (D-Bergen). “It’s something that we agreed upon. We’re all in this together, and we all have an obligation to ensure these federal dollars are properly spent.”

The budget chairman added he believes Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) agrees.

Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), chair of her chamber’s budget panel, raised similar questions Monday over the language’s absence from Murphy’s budget request.

Treasurer Liz Muoio could not say why that language was removed and stopped short of guaranteeing similar language will return. Still, Muoio suggested to Sarlo, as she did before the Assembly Budget Committee Monday, a similar provision could be worked out as budget talks continue over the coming months.

“I’m not going to speak for him,” Muoio said, referring to Murphy, “but I know he has repeatedly said he wants to work with the Legislature on this, and I’m assuming that language will be discussed as we get through the budget process.”

The state government received $1.8 billion from the federal CARES Act and roughly $6.2 billion from the American Rescue Plan. Just $60 million in CARES Act funding has yet to be allocated, Muoio said, while roughly $3 billion in American Rescue Plan funds haven’t been appropriated.

Lawmakers raised some concerns the federal government could take back unused funds, like it did with aid dollars disbursed after Hurricane Sandy.

Muoio said that isn’t a concern for the near future, noting the state has established oversight meant to ensure compliance with federal regulations on the use of aid. New Jersey has until Dec. 31, 2024, to allocate American Rescue Plan aid and until Dec. 31, 2026, to spend it.

Last year’s agreement on federal spending gave Murphy $200 million in federal aid to spend on specific purposes, though the legislative panel’s OK is still required for any single appropriation more than $10 million.

911 surcharge

Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) on Tuesday pressed Muoio on the administration’s decision to again divert funds from the state’s 911 System and Emergency Response Fund, an account established in 2004 to pay for upgrades to county 911 systems.

That fund is filled by a 90-cent surcharge on cellphone and telephone bills. According to budget documents, that tax is expected to bring in $125.9 million in the coming fiscal year but little of that money is expected to be spent on 911 systems.

The state under Gov. Jon Corzine began using the money for other purposes, a practice continued by his two successors.

Funds from the surcharge account for a portion of nearly $405 million in proposed appropriations to the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, the New Jersey State Police, and rural policing initiatives, among other things.

Those expenditures are all allowed under existing law, which imposes some limits on where 911 Trust Fund money can be spent.

Testa has previously complained about trust fund dollars ending up “in the black hole of the state budget.”

“I understand that it’s legal. I just don’t know that it’s right,” Testa said Tuesday.

Muoio noted the administration’s plan for those funds aligns with the law, adding the Legislature can rewrite it to ensure money from the surcharge reaches county 911 systems.

“If the Legislature would like to either change allowable uses or you want to put more into specific purposes, the budget is now proposed and as the chair said, this is a starting point,” she said. “We look forward to the discussion.”

The New Jersey Association of Counties on Tuesday held a press conference urging lawmakers to end the diversions and direct surcharge funds to counties whose 911 call centers need improvement.

“We’re only a natural disaster away from the whole thing failing, and if we can’t help our neighbors out, then what good is our system?” said Camden County Commissioner Jonathan Young, the association’s first vice president.

The Murphy administration wants to spend roughly $13.8 million on upgrades to the statewide 911 system and give $4 million to the Office of Emergency Telecommunications Services, but none of that money appears to be intended for improving local systems.

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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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