TRENTON – State lawmakers approved more than $700 million in spending of federal and state funds Tuesday to support more than a dozen economic development, open space, and pandemic recovery projects.

The votes by the Legislature’s Joint Budget Oversight Committee affirmed spending requests by the Murphy administration, made in compliance with the state budget and developed in cooperation with lawmakers.

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“New Jersey has an amazing opportunity going forward to wisely use the federal funds that have been appropriated to our state to make sure that we are making long-term strategic investments, both in economic development, to help those who have suffered through this pandemic,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.

Treasury no-show

But the approval wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, as no one from the state Department of the Treasury attended the telephonic meeting to answer questions about the spending, to the surprise and chagrin of lawmakers of both parties.

There were also concerns raised that there isn’t a comprehensive plan for how to spend the more than $3.3 billion remaining balance from the state’s American Rescue Plan allocation from the federal government or the $765 million remaining in a state surplus fund set up to take on projects without incurring debt.

“For the small bit of information that we’ve had, how can we ever pass it?” said Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex. “Many of those projects here have merit to them. But with no comprehensive plan, with no strategy for seven months for $6.2 billion?”

What's getting funded?

The programs being allocated federal funds include:

  • $100 million to Hackensack University Medical Center, to strengthen its regional health emergency preparedness infrastructure as it becomes a Level 1 trauma center
  • $40 million to fill COVID-induced funding gaps in already underwritten and in-process affordable housing and community development projects
  • $37.5 million to support people most in need of help with eviction protection program applications and for temporary staff to assess eligibility and determine and disburse assistance payments
  • $25 million for stormwater and public health projects in the Essex-Hudson Greenway transportation corridor, 9 miles of abandoned rail line identified recently as the next state park. JBOC also approved more than $40 million in Green Acres funds being used to purchase land for the same purpose.
  • $20 million to support Inspira Health’s proposed acquisition of the Salem Medical Center
  • $10 million for a “Commuter Hub COVID-Impacted Redevelopment Program” to assist retail and pedestrian activity in urban areas with mass transit that have been hurt by the drop in commuters due to the pandemic
  • $10 million for a Pennsauken community center
  • $5 million to help RWJ Barnabas Health and Rutgers University Behavioral Health with programs that address increased behavioral health needs due to the pandemic
  • $5 million to support the pandemic-related efforts including educational and social services at the Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park in Montclair
  • $5 million for the state to expand post-pandemic business marketing programs
  • $3 million to modernize and renovate the emergency department at Atlantic Health’s Morristown Medical Center
  • $2 million for the Alexander Hamilton Visitor and Education Center at the Great Falls of the Passaic River, a National Historical Park in Paterson
  • $100,000 to support environmental remediation efforts in Vernon Township

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said future allocations need to go toward “one-time corrections of the infrastructure problems that we’ve experienced over the last two years” with technology at the Motor Vehicle Commission and unemployment program.

South Jersey windfall

The funding from the state’s debt prevention fund goes entirely to South Jersey and includes:

  • $265 million for the New Jersey Wind Port, a distribution center for massive wind turbines in Lower Alloways Creek
  • $75 million to build the Rowan University School of Veterinary Medicine, which would be the state’s only veterinary school
  • $45 million for wind-port dredging projects through the Department of Transportation
  • $35 million to the South Jersey Port Corporation for port upgrades
  • $15 million to expand Cooper Medical School at Rowan University

“By essentially paying as we go, we’ll save in carrying costs over time,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. “These are very, very easy to make the public argument that these are all very good public investments.”

Unprecedented absence

JBOC’s four Democratic members voted for the spending, while the two Republicans abstained due to the lack of a full plan or details about how projects were selected.

Sarlo is a longtime member of the Joint Budget Oversight Committee, as he has been the Senate budget committee chairman since 2010.

“This is the first time that we do not have a Treasury representative for a Joint Budget Oversight Committee,” Sarlo said. “So, we will proceed.”

“I just don’t know how we could proceed,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex. “I mean, this whole thing has been in the dark in the process, and now for Treasury not to show up, I think as outrageous as this was before, it’s become more outrageous. What are they trying to hide?

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

The state Treasury Department said it has been sharing information with the Legislature, though it didn’t address why it didn’t attend the meeting.

“The Treasury Department has answered questions and provided information to our legislative partners throughout the ongoing process of allocating federal COVID relief funds,” spokeswoman Danielle Currie said via email. “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.”

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