Murphy administration invites discussion of how to use NJ’s federal COVID-19 aid

The Murphy administration plans two events on distributing nearly $6 billion in federal funds. A Republican lawmaker calls it ‘checking a box’
Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
File photo: Gov. Phil Murphy

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is holding two virtual public events with invited guests this week to discuss ways New Jersey can use billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding.

For the general public, however, only written comments are being accepted at this time, although more events could be held in the future, according to the governor’s office.

New Jersey received more than $6 billion in direct aid in late May as part of its share of the overall nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act enacted by President Joe Biden in March.

Under a new state budget that was put in place by Murphy and lawmakers late last month, a little over $2 billion of the state’s allocation was earmarked for specific purposes, like helping residents who fell  behind on their rent or utility bills during the coronavirus pandemic.

But there is still a large portion of the state’s share of the pandemic-relief funding left unallocated, and many lawmakers and advocacy groups have been calling on the Murphy administration to hold public hearings to collect testimony on using the federal dollars.

Deadline to decide

Under federal law, all of the funding must be obligated for specific purposes by Dec. 31, 2024.

The governor’s office said it cast a wide net in seeking out groups and individuals to provide input on the federal-funding issue. They will be among the dozens who are expected to share their thoughts during two separate virtual forums the administration has scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday and 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

The administration is also collecting written comments on the federal-relief funding from the general public at outreach@nj.gov.

“The Governor’s Office invited over 300 advocacy organizations, unions, and stakeholder groups to provide testimony on possible uses of ARP funding,” said Murphy press secretary Alyana Alfaro Post.

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“These groups represent a broad and diverse cross-section of New Jersey’s over 9 million residents. We welcome further input from constituents, and they are invited to provide written testimony to outreach@nj.gov,” she said.

Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) is raising concerns about the administration’s federal-funding events, which have been billed by Murphy’s office as “virtual hearings.” Testa is among those who’ve faulted the administration’s handling of prior tranches of federal-relief dollars, including the economic support provided to New Jersey businesses hit hard by the pandemic and related shutdowns.

Just checking boxes

“It’s troubling that these hearings seem to be more about checking a box than getting meaningful input,” Testa said.

“The allocation of this money is too important not to get right,” he said. “The state botched the spending of the almost $2.5 billion in (federal) CARES money last year, and employers large and small failed to get desperately needed assistance.”

In addition to funding direct stimulus payments to individuals and extending enhanced unemployment benefits, the American Rescue Plan Act also set aside $195 billion to fund the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund.

This money was sent to the states on top of aid that was provided to fund other, more specific, purposes, such as the $2.7 billion currently available to schools throughout New Jersey.

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

The relief funding is supposed to support the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a “strong and equitable” recovery from an economic downturn that was triggered by the health crisis, according to a fact sheet issued by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Meanwhile, some specific uses were prohibited, including funding public-worker pension payments; offsetting revenue losses caused by new tax cuts; funding deposits into rainy day funds and similar financial reserves; and paying off existing debt.

Bailing out those who’ve fallen behind

Murphy and state lawmakers agreed late last month to set aside $500 million from its share of relief funding for rental assistance and another $250 million to help those who’ve fallen behind on their utility bills during the pandemic.

Another $450 million is also being made available to so-called Level I trauma centers in New Jersey and a $100 million child-care revitalization fund has also been established using the federal dollars.

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

Murphy is not scheduled to participate in this week’s virtual forums himself, but several key administration officials are planning to attend, according to Alfaro Post.

They are Zakiya Smith Ellis, chief policy adviser; Dennis Zeveloff, director of budget and outcomes; Deborah Cornavaca, deputy chief of staff for outreach; and Daniel Kelly, executive director of the governor’s disaster-recovery office.

Those wishing to listen to the virtual forums must register online. Follow this link to register for Tuesday’s event or to register for Wednesday’s event.

— John Mooney contributed to this story.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to amplify the response from the governor’s office about its efforts to include people in these events.

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