Murphy’s list of frozen spending items includes transitional aid for needy towns

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh says his city relies heavily on state transitional aid, receiving $33 million last year. This year they hoped for $26 million, but Gov. Phil Murphy’s frozen most of the transitional aid to municipalities in the new state budget. It’s the biggest chunk of $235 million in spending items the governor’s locked up in reserve. It was part of a list the Treasury unveiled Wednesday, along with 64 other items that include aid for colleges, hospitals, parks and prisons.

“The overwhelming amount of the up to $235 [million] are programs we like,” Murphy said.

When he signed the $38.7 billion state budget, Murphy indicated he couldn’t justify authorizing those expenditures because he believed the Legislature overestimated its revenue projections by $200 million and lawmakers had refused to raise more revenue by passing his millionaire’s tax.

“I want to build a basketball hoop in every driveway in the state, but in the end of the day the buck stops with me. I’ve got to certify these revenues. I’ve got to make sure that we are within our means,” Murphy said.

The $104.8 million in transitional aid tops Murphy’s list of $235 million in frozen spending items. It includes millions for colleges like Montclair State, Stockton University, and Cooper Medical School; grants for a South Jersey Cancer Program; money for Essex County Jail programs; traffic studies, arts and agriculture. Locking up spending items pending required revenue isn’t a new budget trick — Gov. Chris Christie did it in 2016. Some $27 million in frozen programs are tied to Murphy’s nemesis, and longtime friend of Senate President Steve Sweeney, South Jersey power broker George Norcross.

“There’s certainly political undercurrents here, though I think the driving force would just be the financial realities and the governor having this concern about some of the savings and revenue items that were in the legislative budget. At the end of the day, it’s the governor who has that Constitutional authority to certify revenues,” said NJ Spotlight’s John Reitmeyer. “And Murphy is tying these reserve items to maintaining the surplus.”

Sweeney, who stands by the Legislature’s revenue estimates, Wednesday said in a scathing statement, “The Governor’s action putting a so-called freeze on items cherry picked from the budget is a shameless act of political retribution that is both petty and vindictive – it’s Bridgegate on steroids that punishes those who disagree. This is an abuse of gubernatorial power that victimizes some of the neediest and most vulnerable people in New Jersey […]”

The spending freeze is certainly problematic for mayors in cities like Atlantic City, Camden and Paterson who depend on transitional aid to balance their budgets.

“Yeah, there’s the potential for layoffs,” Sayegh said. “I mean, you’re looking at police, fire, public works, potentially. So we’re going to fight to avert that at all costs.”

“First of all, why are they even on this list? They’ve already been determined to be, literally, the most needy municipalities in the state. They need this money to make their cash flow. The state has determined that,” said Michael Darcy, executive director of the League of Municipalities.

The question now: assuming revenues do increase, when and how might they be released?

“We normally don’t receive our award until later in the year. And we will have time to lobby, and we will have advocates,” Sayegh said.

How long will the freeze last? The governor’s indicated he wants proof the revenues are there before he authorizes any spending.