New president, new plans. What Biden means for NJ

NJ Spotlight News | January 20, 2021 | Politics
COVID-19, taxes, climate: The president-elect has signaled he is in a hurry to make big changes on these and other issues
Credit: (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Jan. 19, 2021: President-elect Joe Biden speaks at the Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center in New Castle, Delaware.

When he becomes president Wednesday, Joseph Biden is expected to make immediate changes in policy areas upended by President Trump — first through executive orders, then through an aggressive push with a Congress controlled by Democrats.

Up first, as Biden has promised, is an overhaul in the nation’s response to COVID-19 and its rollout of the needed vaccines. Then a return to work combating climate change. Beyond that, a new Biden administration is expected to have broad impact on life in New Jersey. From finances to climate to COVID-19, NJ Spotlight News looks at key areas where Biden is said to be making changes.

COVID-19

Biden made clear throughout his campaign that tackling COVID-19 was job number one for the new president. Once his election was determined, he released an initial plan to beef up the public response to the pandemic — at the national, state and local levels — and started assembling an expert team to implement the strategy.

That group includes former New Jersey Department of Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson, a onetime policy adviser to the Obama administration, who will oversee the national coronavirus testing program for the Biden/Harris team.

Since then, Biden has added detail to his COVID-19 response strategy and last week unveiled his $1.9 trillion dollar plan to address what he called the “twin crises” of the pandemic and the economic crisis that resulted. The proposal — which requires approval by the politically divided U.S. Congress — reportedly includes $160 billion to boost vaccine production and distribution; it also has additional federal funding for schools, small businesses, state and local governments, and individuals, who would receive $1,400 each.

Vaccine plans

Biden said that on his first day in office he will order the Federal Emergency Management Agency to start setting up large-scale vaccination sites in communities across the country, according to reports. The incoming president promised to have 100 large sites up and running by the end of January.

Credit: (Edwin J. Torres for the NJ Governor's Office)
File photo: Moderna vaccine

In addition, Biden said he will work with pharmacies and other facilities to speed up the pace of immunization nationwide. He also pledged to launch a public education campaign to address so-called vaccine hesitancy in an effort to increase inoculation rates in marginalized communities most at risk for the disease. And he promised to employ the Defense Production Act — a Cold-War-era law forcing private manufacturers to prioritize government contracts — to ensure there are sufficient vaccine supplies.

Observers have faulted officials in New Jersey, where some 388,000 vaccines have been administered to date — almost 60% of what the federal government claims it shipped to the state — for the sluggish pace of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout. For those now eligible, immunizations are available by appointment at more than 100 sites run by state, county and local governments, and hospitals and other health care facilities.

“All that we are currently missing are the doses of vaccines necessary for us to put this machinery into high gear,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday, reiterating that the state continues to receive fewer doses than it requests from federal authorities. “However, with the incoming Biden administration taking office [Wednesday], and a new federal focus on pushing vaccines out at a greater pace, we are hopeful that we will be able to start ramping up our in-state capabilities to meet what we know is a tremendous demand.”

Affordable Care Act

President-elect Biden is seeking congressional approval for funding to expand insurance coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act, beef up veterans’ health services and to extend COBRA benefits for those who lost jobs under the pandemic. He is also requesting more money to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Climate change

Given the many abrupt shifts in policy on the issue by the Trump administration, perhaps none of Biden’s decisions will be more meaningful for New Jersey than that to confront the ongoing impacts of climate change.

Many of the new president’s initiatives align themselves with policies already being adopted by Gov. Phil Murphy, from trying to significantly cut greenhouse-gas emissions contributing to global warming to long neglected efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change and the disproportionate effects of pollution in environmental-justice communities.

But a flurry of presidential executive orders — beginning with a move to rejoin the Paris climate accord expected to be made Wednesday by the new president — and others soon to follow will bolster those goals, including more financial incentives to transition to cleaner fuels, and solar and wind power, as well as electrifying the transportation system across the country.

Environmental regulations

The Biden administration is expected to move quickly to reverse most of the more than 100 Trump administration environmental regulations that critics say weakened programs to protect drinking water, reduce methane emissions and toughen fuel economy standards for vehicles. Many of those rules have yet to be implemented, tied up in litigation by states, including New Jersey, that opposed the rollbacks.

Credit: (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
File photo: Installing solar panels

A big test for the new administration, however, will be finding the funding to launch Biden’s clean-energy initiatives, with Democrats holding the slimmest margin in controlling the Senate. With a 50-50 split only broken by Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, investments of any magnitude will face tough votes especially given coping with a surging pandemic and a still shattered economy as other top priorities.

Biden’s climate plan calls for a $2 trillion investment, funded by an increase in corporate income taxes. He and his advisers have touted the spending as a key part of his economic recovery plan by creating tens of thousands of new clean-energy jobs.

Pipeline plans

In another symbolic and significant step, the new president is expected on Wednesday to cancel a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project that would have sent Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline project has been widely opposed by environmentalists, who have been pressing to halt new fossil fuel developments.

Reopening schools

New Jersey schools and educators will be closely watching the Biden administration from Day One, as the President-elect has signaled some immediate action on public education and more to follow.

Biden has pledged to call in his first week for as much as $130 billion in additional funds for public schools nationwide to help them reopen, with funding for retrofitting of buildings to needed staffing and programming. He has said that under his plan, a majority of schools will be able to reopen in his first 100 days, although he has been imprecise on how he would measure that. The funding would be a significant increase over what has so far been provided. How much would go to New Jersey under Biden’s plan is uncertain; some estimates suggest that as much as $500 million in additional funding is needed in the Garden State to reopen schools in-person and address learning loss.

School testing

Next up, the Biden administration will need to act soon on a lingering question facing all states: Will the federal government allow states to suspend student testing for a second year due to the pandemic? New Jersey’s Department of Education has said it is planning to administer the state tests this spring, but that was based on the Trump administration saying it would not waive the federal requirement for annual testing. The Biden administration has yet to signal its intentions on the issue, leaving open the possibility that New Jersey and other states could request a waiver. The Murphy administration won’t have much time to decide its approach, with some of its testing slated to start in mid-March.

Credit: (AP Photo/Christine Armario)
File photo: School testing

Beyond these short-term issues, any change of administrations in Washington requires many other adjustments by states in key areas where the federal government plays a role, from special education to charter schools to civil rights enforcement.

The Trump administration — and specifically former education secretary Betsy DeVos — had in general a rocky relationship with the public-school establishment nationwide, including the ultimately unsuccessful drive by DeVos to allow states to provide private school vouchers. The new administration under acting education secretary Miguel Cardona, the former Connecticut education commissioner and a former teacher and supervisor, is expected to be considerably less confrontational.

COVID-19 stimulus

The nearly $2 trillion coronavirus recovery plan proposed by incoming President Joe Biden calls for $350 billion in new aid to states and local governments. It’s unclear whether that figure will make it through the U.S. Senate, where Democrats will have a narrow advantage, but it marks a major change in how the fiscal troubles experienced by state and local governments as a result of the pandemic are now being viewed from the White House. Outgoing President Donald Trump criticized such aid, but Biden has suggested it is vital to the nation’s recovery.

That makes it more likely that New Jersey’s budget could receive a meaningful boost under Biden’s recovery plan since the Democratic-controlled U.S. House had already been seeking to provide state and local governments with significant aid. The additional help from the federal government could ease pressure caused by state revenue losses triggered by the health crisis and which are expected to continue for several months in New Jersey.

Stimulus checks

Many New Jersey residents would be in line to receive a $1,400 stimulus payment under the coronavirus recovery plan Biden proposed last week. That would push the total for such payments to $2,000 since just the end of December. Last year, federally funded stimulus payments provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act helped pump billions of dollars into the New Jersey economy, and state Treasury officials indicated those payments and other federal stimulus aid likely helped stave off more significant revenue losses at the state level during the worst months of the pandemic.

Tax increases

Biden’s plan to enact higher federal taxes, including on the wealthy and on some capital gains, is something to keep a close eye on during his first year in office. While revenue from proposed tax hikes could help fund the new administration’s own policy goals, the adoption of new federal tax rates and other changes could also provide an indirect boost to New Jersey’s budget. That would come if taxpayers decide to report significant amounts of income before any tax-policy changes are made to ensure their income is taxed at the federal rates currently in place, and not those Biden is seeking to enact. Such a scenario occurred in 2013 in New Jersey during the tenure of former President Barack Obama.

Unemployment benefits

Biden’s recovery plan also calls for increasing enhanced federal unemployment benefits and making them available through at least September. That would be welcome news for the thousands of New Jersey residents who remain unemployed due to the pandemic. A broader push to expand COVID-19 vaccination efforts that Biden has been calling for as part of his first-year agenda could also affect the state economy if it slows the overall rate of new infections and causes an easing of pandemic-related economic restrictions.

Undocumented residents

New Jersey’s large community of undocumented immigrants stands to benefit from the Biden administration’s kinder stance, including proposing “on day one” a comprehensive reform plan that will include a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the country. According to the Pew Research Center, New Jersey is home to about 475,000 undocumented immigrants, the fifth-highest number of any state. An estimated 17,000 are covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program with thousands more having Temporary Protected Status. Both those groups would receive automatic green cards under a proposal Vice President-elect Kamala Harris referenced last week. Speaking to Univision, Harris also said the new administration will seek to decrease the time it takes a green-card holder to become a citizen and add judges to the immigration courts to decrease backlogs.

— Tom Johnson, John Mooney, Colleen O’Dea, John Reitmeyer and Lilo H. Stainton contributed to this story.