On a day when temperatures dipped below zero in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a bill providing additional emergency aid for some public-assistance recipients in danger of becoming homeless, a move that was both unexpected and served to further aggravate his feud with Sen. President Steve Sweeney.
The absolute veto of S-1965, which Murphy based on concerns about state budget revenues, was surprising for a governor who espouses progressive values and had enacted a similar safety-net measure at the end of last year. It also disappointed advocates and angered Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the bill’s primary sponsor.
“I’m very upset about what he did,” said Sweeney, who accused Murphy of putting out “false numbers to justify an absolute veto of the bill, on the coldest day of the year.” Sweeney said the purpose of the bill is “trying to keep people in their houses.”
Sharp differences over potential cost
Murphy’s veto message did not cite any specific cost estimate for the bill, but anonymous administration sources reportedly said it would cost $200 million to provide the emergency housing aid if the bill became law. Sweeney disputed that, though, saying that at most it would cost $100 million in a “worst case scenario.”
Senate staff said the total emergency assistance budget for the state this year is about $58 million, including federal funds, and about 3,600 New Jerseyans received the aid last October. They estimate the actual cost of the bill at closer to $20 million.
“Look, we just did a bill today to give horses $100 million over five years,” Sweeney continued, referring to legislation to give taxpayer-funded subsidies to the horseracing industry.
“I’m talking about people. I’m talking about people who are getting kicked out of their houses,” Sweeney added. “And by the way, we passed that bill because the governor said he wanted it … At the same time, I get a veto on the coldest day of the year saying that, sorry, you’re out of luck, and then giving me bogus numbers to try to justify what they did.”
In his veto message, Murphy indicated the state might not be able to afford the “many millions of dollars” the bill could cost.
“According to the Legislative Fiscal Estimate accompanying this bill, its fiscal impact would be ‘indeterminate’ … there ‘are possibly tens of thousands of households’ that may qualify for benefits under the bill,” Murphy wrote. “At this point in time, midway through the Fiscal Year, the State of New Jersey confronts uncertain tax collections.”
Murphy sounding like his predecessor
This marks the first time Murphy has publicly expressed anything but confidence in state revenues. Last week, state treasury officials downplayed concerns about tax collections not meeting expectations. The first half of the fiscal year closed in December with revenues up about 2 percent compared with the same period last year, but the budget needs a 7.5 percent revenue increase through the end of June to remain balanced, as the state constitution requires.
The governor added in language hearkening back to what former Gov. Chris Christie often wrote in his vetoes of spending bills.
“While I certainly support the provision and expansion of affordable housing opportunities, I also believe that the long term fiscal implications of the bill, and other bills that directly affect the State’s finances, must be carefully considered,” Murphy wrote. “I believe that matters of tax policy and State expenditures should be considered as part of the overall annual budget negotiation process.”
A number of people — including Sweeney himself — read the veto as at least partially a swipe at the Senate president, who has said repeatedly that the state is in the midst of a “fiscal crisis.” Sweeney has also said, and he repeated on Thursday, that increasing taxes is not the answer.
“Listen, he’s absolutely vetoed eight bills since he’s become governor. Five of them were mine. What do you think is going on?” Sweeney told reporters in discussing the veto.
Murphy’s office did not return a request for comment about whether the veto was politically motivated. The governor vetoed two other bills on Thursday. Sweeney was a sponsor of one of those — a measure that would have imposed conditions on certain investments in which the state has a more than 50-percent interest — as well. The other bill sought to create a new income-tax exclusion for attorneys’ fees involving government fraud cases and Murphy again cited budgetary concerns, saying the potential loss of $56 million this year would hurt state revenues.
Advocates express keen disappointment
Advocates also disputed the administration’s cost estimate as overstated and said the Office of Legislative Services’ fiscal estimate of potentially “tens of thousands” being eligible was also too high. They also noted that OLS stated that “many of these may never again apply for emergency assistance.”
“This is not about politics, it’s about policy and compassion for our neighbors in need,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “The governor’s veto is heartbreaking and unconscionable … These are NJ residents who are already the most vulnerable and cannot be employed.”
The people whom the bill would have covered are those who get cash benefits under the programs that replaced what used to be known as welfare, and are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. Currently, a person or family can receive this assistance only once, for one 12-month period, with a potential additional six months. The bill sought to let a person or family become eligible for the housing aid again after seven years have passed.
Monthly emergency assistance payments range from $600 to $1,000 a month per person, according to the OLS estimate.
“The veto today is extremely disappointing on the coldest day of the year for people who have been denied assistance by the state for far too long,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. “Almost 40 percent of people are struggling in New Jersey on incomes that are too low to survive on, even though most of them are working. It is almost inevitable that they will find themselves falling in and out of homelessness, or near homelessness, trying to survive in our high-cost state. They deserve assistance when needed.”
Veto at odds with earlier step
Just six weeks ago, Murphy signed a law to restore for the next five years emergency housing assistance payments to people over age 60, ill or disabled or caring for someone ill or disabled, or chronically unemployable. Christie had cut funding for that program in mid-2015, when the state was spending about $15 million to help house about 3,000 people. OLS estimated it will cost about $5.3 million a year to continue that aid for a smaller number of people.
“It’s baffling that the governor would cut off this lifeline for the small number of people who need temporary help the most,” Berger said. “We’re extremely disappointed the governor did not sign this bill which had overwhelming bipartisan support … During the coldest days of the year, we are urging the legislature and the governor to find a solution immediately.”
Because of the large majorities that backed the bill, a veto override might be possible. The Senate passed it 35-0, while the Assembly vote was 70-9. It takes 27 votes in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly to override a gubernatorial veto. Sweeney did not answer a question about whether he might attempt an override.