Aid for undocumented residents dominates governor’s federal spending

By: - January 10, 2023 6:46 am

Gov. Phil Murphy has allocated $125 million from a $300 million pot of federal funds the Legislature gave him last year as part of budget negotiations. (Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

Federal dollars the state budget set aside to be spent at Gov. Phil Murphy’s discretion have so far gone almost entirely to boost aid to the state’s undocumented residents and others who did not receive federal COVID-19 stimulus payments.

Murphy, a Democrat in his second term, has allocated roughly $125 million of the $300 million in federal dollars the Legislature gave him to spend, and $120 million of that money has gone to boost funding for aid programs.

Lawmakers created the $300 million fund as part of negotiations over the state’s $50.6 billion spending plan for the 2023 fiscal year. It replaced a similar $200 million fund fueled by federal money approved for the prior budget year.

Rules for the $300 million fund allow Murphy, with some restrictions, to make individual allocations of up to $20 million — up from $10 million in the fiscal 2022 agreement — without seeking approval from the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, a bicameral panel that holds approval powers for most spending involving American Rescue Plan dollars.

Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex), the chamber’s Republican budget officer, said he worries the state has been too slow in disbursing federal dollars already allocated by the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, noting the funds continue to lose value amid lingering inflation.

“Eighty-five-percent of the funds haven’t been expended despite being allocated,” he said. “It seems like a snail’s pace getting the money out the door when the whole purpose of the money was to keep the economy going through the pandemic.”

Lawmakers must allocate American Rescue Plan dollars by the end of 2024 and spend them by the end of 2026 to avoid the federal government taking it back.

“We have worked with legislative leadership in taking a thoughtful approach to expending these funds so that they are maximized in a way that will prove transformative over the long term,” said Jennifer Sciortino, a spokesperson for the governor. “Knee-jerk spending habits are the reason New Jersey suffered 11 credit downgrades under the previous Republican administration and had a minimal surplus to weather tough economic times.”

Excluded New Jerseyans

As in the prior fiscal year, Murphy has made repeated appropriations to the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund, so far setting aside a total of $60 million across three $20 million allocations. The state has approved close to $54 million in benefits from the fund, a Department of Human Services spokesperson said.

The fund, launched in 2021, is meant to deliver pandemic aid to undocumented immigrants and others who were ineligible for federal stimulus payments under three rounds of federal COVID-19 aid.

“This is the first time in the history of New Jersey that our state has created specific funds that recognize the contributions, the humanity, the dignity of people who’ve been traditionally excluded, whether that’s because of your immigration status or because of the kind of work that you do. So that’s a really important step,” said Sara Cullinane, director of immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey.

Though advocates have praised the investments in typically underserved communities, they have also called on the administration to do more with its money, noting the investments into the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund made in the current fiscal year would reach roughly 120,000 residents.

“We know there are hundreds of thousands of people still left behind,” Cullinane said. “We hope that the state takes as a lesson from the pandemic that we have to include excluded people in permanent relief and also continue funding these important recovery programs.”

It’s not clear whether Murphy intends to put more money into the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund. A spokesperson for the governor signaled it is unlikely the program would be rolled into the state’s annual appropriations process.

“Governor Murphy remains committed to maximizing the impact of these flexible federal funds on New Jersey’s recovery and restart efforts without creating unsustainable commitments for the state budget,” Sciortino said.

The governor devoted another $60 million in federal aid to a separate assistance program for residents with an individual taxpayer identification number, which is used by taxpayers who do not have a Social Security number.

The program in November provided payments of $500 per ITIN holder on a filer’s 2021 New Jersey tax return to taxpayers who qualified based on their income.

Only residents who filed a 2021 tax return were eligible to receive an award under the program.

Veterans homes oversight

The governor’s final allocation sets aside $5 million to fund oversight and consulting services for state veterans memorial homes that saw stark death tolls during the pandemic.

The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs last month announced it is seeking consulting services at veterans homes in Paramus, Vineland, and Menlo Park. The administration later hired new supervisory staff at the Menlo Park facility, where federal authorities in November suspended new admissions over a series of health and safety violations.

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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.