What to do with federal COVID-19 aid? Spend big on big problems

Advocates make the case for NJ to support workers, help renters and do more with billions in aid
Credit: (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
New Jersey State House

With cases of COVID-19 once again on the rise in New Jersey, groups representing everyone from public workers and undocumented immigrants to affordable-housing advocates and small businesses say they deserve a share of the state’s federal pandemic relief.

A nearly $4 billion portion of federal funding for New Jersey has yet to be allocated by Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers, and dozens of requests for some of those dollars were aired publicly this week by interest groups invited by the administration to participate in two separate virtual events.

The lengthy events put the focus on areas of need that have been exposed by the ongoing health crisis, including a dearth of affordable housing amid a hot real-estate market and continued high demand for rental assistance.

Many also called for more support for small businesses and compensation for workers who have put themselves at risk by staying on the job throughout the pandemic, including undocumented workers who’ve largely been ineligible for the numerous rounds of federally funded stimulus payments.

And many who were invited to speak by the Murphy administration also said the billions in federal aid, provided through the American Rescue Plan Act, has given the state a once-in-a-lifetime chance to address long-standing issues like racial health disparities and aging water infrastructure.

The speakers for the two events were pre-arranged by the Murphy administration. Members of the public have also been asked to submit input via outreach@nj.gov. More meetings may be scheduled, according to the administration.

Figuring out where to spend

Administration officials say they have only begun figuring out how best to use funding that must, under federal law, be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024.

“We hope to share more about our plans, which will come in the coming months,” said Zakiya Smith Ellis, Murphy’s chief policy adviser, at the close of Wednesday’s virtual event.

New Jersey received $6.24 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding on May 19, according to the state Department of Treasury.

Murphy and state lawmakers agreed late last month to set aside about a third of that funding for specific purposes, including $500 million for rental assistance and another $250 million to help those who’ve fallen behind on their utility bills during the pandemic.

Among other earmarked spending, $450 million is being made available to Level I trauma centers in New Jersey and $100 million to establish a child-care revitalization fund.

The state also plans to spend $600 million over the next three years to fund additional special-education services using the federal dollars, according to Murphy and lawmakers.

Other spending

Meanwhile, Murphy and lawmakers have announced they will also be working through the Legislature’s Joint Budget Oversight Committee to authorize additional spending of the federal funds.

In May, the Murphy administration announced that $40 million from last year’s federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act would be used to establish a new fund to help New Jersey residents who suffered short periods of unemployment during the pandemic, including undocumented immigrants. That allocation fell well short of the nearly $1 billion that advocates for the state’s undocumented workers have for months been seeking.

Thanks to the new tranche of federal aid received in May, New Jersey “has the resources to provide this relief to essential and immigrant workers,” said Jorge Torres of the Day Laborers Organizing Network during Wednesday’s virtual event.

Still, “the state has chosen to ignore their suffering,” Torres said.

And despite a recent focus on beefing up funding for rental assistance and affordable housing, more help is needed, suggested Staci Berger, president and chief executive of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, during Tuesday’s virtual event.

Housing worries, business worries

“During the pandemic … we’ve heard time and again that housing is health, and that health is housing,” she said. “Unfortunately, New Jersey continues to have a growing housing crisis where people simply cannot afford the rent.”

Frank Crivelli, speaking on behalf of state correctional officers, made a case during Wednesday’s event for using a share of the remaining federal dollars to provide correctional officers with “premium pay.”

“We’ve had five (officers) perish directly as a result of COVID-19,” Crivelli told members of the Murphy administration.

“Unfortunately, because of the nature of the job, and the work that’s performed, our officers have to report to work. There was no working at home, of course, because they are frontline workers,” he said.

More significant aid is also needed to sustain restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses, said Bhavesh Patel, chairman of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

During Wednesday’s event, Patel rattled off the names of several restaurants and hotels in New Jersey that have closed permanently during the pandemic. He also raised concerns about oversubscribed state and federal assistance programs for businesses.

“Often, the amount (of aid) available to applicants has been too small or too late to make a significant difference,” Patel said.

Several speakers during the virtual events also urged the administration to devote portions of the federal funding to projects that could have a generational impact, such as the rebuilding of aging drinking-water infrastructure.

“The first place to start, for our cities in New Jersey, are the systems that were built a century ago,” said Amy Goldsmith, state director for Clean Water Action, during Tuesday’s event. She identified the cities of Newark, Paterson, Trenton and Perth Amboy as those “that really need the help.”

“Let’s put those dollars to work,” Goldsmith said.

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