Sweeney, Murphy Deal to End Showdown Over Homeless Aid

Colleen O'Dea | March 15, 2019 | Politics
Accord paves way for needy New Jerseyans to get additional emergency housing assistance, and spares governor a veto override

Credit: Jon Tyson/Unsplash
Homeless
Needy New Jerseyans may get additional emergency housing aid after all, and Gov. Phil Murphy appears to have sidestepped a potentially embarrassing veto override, as the state Senate on Thursday passed two anti-homelessness measures as part of a compromise with the governor.

The passage of S-3586 by a bipartisan 34-0 vote meets a deadline imposed last month by Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) after Murphy vetoed his bill to allow most recipients of cash public assistance, formerly called welfare, to be eligible for aid to avert homelessness once every seven years. Currently, they can get only one 12-to-18-month block of emergency payments over a lifetime.

Also passed was a companion bill (S-3585) to create a new state homelessness prevention office, which Murphy sought as part of the compromise with Sweeney.

Both bills were fast-tracked without any public hearings. Sweeney said hearings were unnecessary because the new bill is close to the one Murphy vetoed, which did receive full legislative hearings. “I want the governor to sign this as soon as possible so we can get people help,” he added.

Still a sore point

Despite the compromise, Sweeney again voiced his frustration, saying the delay in providing additional emergency aid could have been avoided if Murphy had just discussed his concerns, which could have been resolved with a conditional veto.

“All they had to do was call us,” Sweeney said. “You should never forget me as a Senate president. You should never absolutely veto a member’s bill without at least talking to them first. For me it was very, very personal.”

“I am thrilled we came to an agreement,” he added. “I can tell you we would have come to the same agreement, all they had to do was talk to us.”

Murphy’s veto message had indicated the measure could be too expensive, which Sweeney and advocates disputed. Sweeney said he was “furious” when the governor’s staff suggested that the cost of the bill could reach $200 million, when his own staff was suggesting it would be no more than a tenth of that.

Last month, the Senate president had planned a vote to override the veto, but pulled it at the last minute, giving the governor three weeks to reconsider.

An override by a legislature dominated by his own party would be an embarrassment to Murphy, a progressive Democrat only two months into his second year in office. The state Legislature has not overridden a gubernatorial veto in 22 years and that was with a Republican governor and Democratic Legislature. The chances for success with an override were good, given both houses of the Legislature had passed the measure with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Tweaks address Murphy’s money concerns

The measure the sides negotiated puts a cap of $20 million a year on the total amount of assistance the state could distribute to people who had already received emergency housing aid and limits future aid they could get to 24 months.

This does not limit aid to people in certain special categories — those over age 60, the disabled and those caring for the disabled and the chronically unemployable. They can receive housing aid under a different law that Sweeney sponsored, which took effect earlier this year.

Sweeney’s original vetoed bill did not set any time- or total-expenditure limits on the assistance. It also did nothing to beef up homelessness assistance efforts by the state. The compromise bill includes up to $5 million to pay for case-management assistance to help aid beneficiaries get back on their feet and find permanent, affordable homes.

Housing advocates, who worked with both Sweeney and Murphy’s staffs, were pleased. They had been concerned that the issue of trying to prevent homelessness had become caught up in the political feud between Sweeney and Murphy.

“This bill will help more families,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. “We are also very supportive of the proposed Office of Homelessness Initiatives that will be housed at DCA, but will be interdepartmental in its focus to pull together ideas and funding to better meet the needs of people.”

Advocates applaud the deal

On the heels of Sweeney postponing the veto to override, 150 advocates had sent a letter to the governor urging him to work with lawmakers on a bill that provided the aid but also included a limit on the state’s cost.

“We commend Governor Murphy and legislative leaders for coming to a compromise that will protect our most vulnerable residents,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “Emergency Assistance is a lifeline for people on the verge of homelessness who simply need temporary help … We are thrilled and applaud everyone involved who made this happen and look forward to solving NJ’s housing crisis together.”

Under the overall spending limit in the bill, applicants would be served on a first-come first-served basis until the funds run out. But neither Sweeney nor advocates expect the demand to exceed the $20 million cap. The aid, estimated at between $600 and $1,000 a month per person, is available only to those facing imminent homelessness. According to Sweeney, the money can also be used for food and clothing, in addition to housing.

Advocates have argued that the current lifetime cap is cruel, as an individual’s circumstances can change dramatically over time. A person who may have received aid as a young single parent should not be prevented from getting additional emergency housing assistance 25 years later if facing homelessness due to a job loss and other financial problems, they contend.

The second measure the Senate passed Thursday (S-3585) creates a new Office of Homelessness Prevention in the state Department of Community Affairs and funds it with $3 million. In unveiling his proposed budget for the coming year, Murphy asked for the creation of such an office.

The new office would coordinate homelessness-prevention efforts of state and local governments and private agencies and implement a statewide strategy to deal with the issue. The new state office would compile data on programs and assistance. It would also create a task force to develop, promote and support efforts to best coordinate funding to address homelessness.

That bill passed 28-7, with all no votes cast by Republicans.

Duplication of efforts?

Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) spoke on the floor against the bill, saying it would create an unnecessary taxpayer-funded bureaucracy that would only duplicate work already being done.

“We already have agencies that are working to address this crisis,” Pennacchio said. “If they aren’t doing their jobs, then we need to figure out why and work to increase oversight and accountability within our existing support structures … While I laud the sponsor’s intent to help the homeless, the execution and the price tag outweighs the potential benefit. We would be better off taking that $3 million and writing checks to the homeless directly.”

Sweeney, who sponsored the bill, said he saw Pennacchio’s point, but passage of the bill was part of the compromise struck with Murphy.

“Am I excited about creating another government branch? No, but you know something, that’s not a bad office to make sure things are coordinated and care is accomplished,” Sweeney said. “Again, when you make a compromise, you make a compromise.”

Both measures now head to the Assembly.