New Jersey received the more than $ 6 billion allocated to it under the latest federal COVID-19 relief plan, the state treasurer confirmed in a budget hearing Thursday.
But how exactly Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration wants to use these dollars remains an open – and somewhat controversial – question.
“There is no plan in place at the moment,” Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio told members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee after several people were asked about the state of federal dollars, which come from the $ 1.9 trillion global relief package that President Joe Biden adopted in March.
âThe administration is working, I think, with the legislature to look at what the different needs are, what kinds of short-term spending exist (and) long-term,â Muoio said.
That was not enough to satisfy some lawmakers, including the Republicans on the committee who offered a quick reprimand.
“It is clear that neither Governor Murphy nor Treasurer Muoio are willing to articulate a plan to spend this money effectively,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) and the other GOP members of the committee in a joint press release.
Meanwhile, some Democrats on the committee also expressed concerns about federal funding, including President Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who stressed the need for a “contribution from the legislature.”
Not very well-known
It wasn’t widely known until Thursday’s budget hearing that the state had received the federal dollars in a single deposit earlier this week, and some lawmakers weren’t happy to have discovered the deposit only after squeezing. the treasurer on the matter at the hearing.
How the state spends $ 6.24 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act money has emerged as a key issue to be resolved in the run-up to the state’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The new tranche of aid – although more substantial than previous rounds of federal pandemic relief – can only be used for specific purposes, such as funding ongoing public health and recovery needs. economic, according to interim federal guidelines released earlier this month. Preliminary estimates had indicated that the state would receive up to $ 6.4 billion, but Treasury officials confirmed the final amount to be slightly lower.
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Murphy’s administration handled New Jersey’s share of previous rounds of federal COVID-19 funding largely without legislative input.
Lawmakers want a say in spending
But lawmakers on both sides have indicated they want more say in determining how the state will spend the funding just received. They also suggested that separate legislation be passed or wording written in the next state budget to direct spending of more than $ 6 billion, which is not to be used in its entirety until December 31, 2024.
Some lawmakers have already identified areas where they think funding should go immediately, including supporting the state’s unemployment insurance fund. The fund has come under heavy pressure over the past year, after claims for benefits increased due to the health crisis and economic restrictions put in place to slow the rate of infections.
“This is one of the uses that seemed to be allowed by the guidelines, the interim guidelines that are now published,” Muoio told O’Scanlon after asking about the unemployment fund during Thursday’s hearing. .
âI think this is one of the many uses that the administration, working with the legislative branch, is considering as a potential use of the funds,â she said.
Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden) also made a case for using a share of the federal money to help New Jersey businesses that she says are “going stomach-ache” during the pandemic.
âThis is clearly an area where the money can be used,â Muoio replied.
Some lawmakers were not happy to have discovered the deposit of federal dollars only after O’Scanlon pressed the treasurer for a direct response on the state of funding at the hearing.
These frustrations also coincided with Republican criticism from majority Democrats over a COVID-19 emergency bill drafted earlier this week that calls for an end to the public health emergency that Murphy, also a Democrat, is holding. in place for over 14 months.
While allowing the public health emergency to end, this legislation would also leave in place for the rest of the year more than a dozen other decrees that the governor has enacted since the onset of the health crisis. last year. The bill was originally supposed to be voted on in the plenary on Thursday, but was taken off the agenda at the last minute by President Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), who spoke of the need to “refine” the legislation.
O’Scanlon and his senior Republican colleagues Steve Oroho (Sussex), Michael Testa (Cumberland) and Sam Thompson (Middlesex) criticized the administration’s handling of the pandemic response. In a joint statement released after the budget hearing ended, they said she “has not been transparent about New Jersey’s finances and withheld important information from the public and lawmakers.”
“This outrage should be all the evidence our fellow Democrats need to join us in pushing forward legislation to strip Governor Murphy of the power to spend these funds without any legislative oversight or public input,” lawmakers said. of the GOP.
Also after the hearing, Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Sciortino reiterated in a statement that federal guidelines for funding the American Rescue Plan Act had been issued on an interim basis and were “not yet final.” .
“We will continue to assess authorized uses of ARP funds while working collaboratively with our partners in the Legislature to ensure we meet the many urgent needs of the state and ensure our continued recovery after the pandemic, âshe said.
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