Several measures that are meant to address individuals’ financial needs due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic were advanced by a New Jersey Assembly committee Thursday. But with some of the bills calling for a state appropriation, their future is unclear.
Last Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed five of eight bills that sought to spend state money to help needy individuals, students and food banks and in all cases cited the state’s “dire” financial situation as the reason for his absolute vetoes. Murphy has repeatedly declined to provide specifics about the state’s budget situation but wants to borrow money to shore up finances.
Such sentiment may not bode well for at least two of the measures seeking to provide a combined $125 million in emergency relief to individuals that the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee approved Thursday in the first ever videoconference of a state legislative committee. The meeting was noteworthy not just because of the technology involved, but because it was the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak that Republicans vocalized their objections to measures the Democratic-controlled Legislature has been advancing to provide assistance to New Jerseyans.
Emergency rental assistance
The more expensive of those bills (A-3956/S-2332) would create a $100 million emergency rental assistance program for those who have lost income due to the viral outbreak and closure of most businesses in the state. The bill’s sponsors are hoping that a provision requiring the state to use federal emergency assistance funding before a general state appropriation will make the measure more palatable to Murphy.
Tenants with incomes of up to 120% of an area’s median income — which for affordable housing purposes ranges as high as $82,810 for an individual in Hunterdon, Middlesex and Somerset counties — and who are at least 30 days past due on paying rent would be eligible. The bill would take effect immediately and expire 90 days after the end of the eviction moratorium Murphy put in place as part of emergency measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
David Brogan of the New Jersey Apartment Association said that because the bill would use the framework of the existing state Homelessness Prevention Program to provide rental payments “there’ll be a seamless transition into administering this program because DCA (the Department of Community Affairs) has been administering the HPP for many, many years and there is no need to establish a new governmental organization to implement the program.”
Looking to revise welfare program
The other bill with a price tag (A-3905) would spend $17 million — reduced from $25 million in the original bill — in revising the state’s main welfare program, Work First New Jersey (WFNJ), although that money would come from general state revenues. Last Monday, Murphy vetoed A-3858, which had sought to issue supplemental cash payments to WFNJ recipients, despite saying he shared the sponsors’ “concerns for the well-being of those in need” because of its likely high, though unspecified, cost.
The changes in this new bill go beyond the current pandemic and seek a significant overhaul of the program.
Most importantly, and expensively, it would increase Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits to provide a family with income at half of the federal poverty level; currently, a family of three gets $559 a month, which is just 31% of poverty. Additionally, the bill would expand eligibility to include college students and immigrants not currently able to collect, update acceptable work requirements to include classes, training and internships, expand reasons why recipients can be excused from meeting requirements due to health or safety considerations. It would also prevent the current public health emergency from counting toward the time limit recipients have to comply with work requirements.
Raymond Castro, director of health policy at the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said the bill embodies a number of reforms recommended by a recent report that “identified many disturbing policies that destabilize families, discourage work and perpetuate, rather than alleviate, poverty.”
Such arguments didn’t sway Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-Bergen), who cast one of two “no” votes.
“I have so many constituents that are in jeopardy of losing their homes during this right now and their concerns haven’t been addressed here today,” he said. “Let everybody bear a little bit of the burden.”
Long-term economic benefits?
But Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), a sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said overhauling the program would help people get jobs and get out of poverty, which would ultimately improve the state as a whole.
“Our public assistance programs must be focused on lifting individuals out of poverty, placing them on a path towards self-sustainability and ensuring a smooth transition as they shift towards independence,” she said. “The changes approved today will do just that, making the Work First New Jersey program more accessible and allowing it to better serve our state’s most vulnerable by placing a greater focus on improving long term financial stability.”
The bill has already cleared the state Senate and could get final approval from the Assembly as early as next week.
A third bill passed by the committee (A-3908) is meant to provide New Jerseyans with some measure of protection from creditors and from a drop in creditworthiness.
It would limit the ability of medical creditors and debt collectors to take certain legal actions — seizing a bank account or garnishing wages, for instance — against an individual for 180 days after the first medical bill has been sent. The measure would also prevent a consumer report or credit-scoring model from considering an individual’s adverse financial situation due to the COVID-19 emergency as a negative factor in determining whether to grant credit if the person has alerted a consumer reporting agency of loss of income.
“With the most recent labor report revealing that about one in 10 New Jerseyans is filing for unemployment, it is abundantly clear residents are struggling,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer), a bill sponsor. “Making ends meet right now is a daily fight and often a decision between putting food on the table and paying bills. Ensuring there are no long-term consequences for an inability to meet certain financial obligations, so people can focus on providing for themselves and their families first, is what we must do.”
But an organizer with New Jersey Citizen Action complained that the committee stripped important provisions — such as protecting individuals from all debt collection procedures, rather than just medical debt collections — out of the measure when it amended the bill. Beverly Brown Ruggia urged the full Assembly to restore the protections.
“Last minute amendments that favor debt collectors and corporate interests have stripped this bill of many vital financial protections consumers desperately need during this pandemic,” Ruggia said. “Instead of ensuring relief and stability, the legislation as it stands will leave millions of New Jerseyans right where they have been for two months: vulnerable, financially insecure and scared.”