Groups lobby state for American Rescue Plan billions

By Michelle Brunetti Post

In the second of the Murphy administration’s two online hearings about how the state should spend its $6.2 billion American Rescue Plan grant, representatives of teachers, essential workers, business owners, undocumented workers and more asked for millions for their constituencies.

“Our communities were already struggling with major disasters before COVID hit,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project.

The organization started in the wake of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy to help people get aid to rebuild their homes and has expanded to addressing opioid abuse.

Devecka-Rinear asked for about $100 million in relief to help homeowners and municipalities repay “clawbacks” — partial repayments of Sandy aid dollars demanded by the federal government.

NJOP also is seeking $50 million to increase access to drugs to reverse opioid overdoses and $50 million to provide mobile medical treatment vans for each county.

Run by Deborah Cornavaca, Murphy’s deputy chief of staff of outreach, dozens of people spoke over a two-hour hearing.

Murphy’s Chief Policy Adviser Zakiya Smith-Ellis opened by saying one third of the $6.2 billion has been dedicated already to eviction protection ($750 million); special education services ($600 million); emergency preparedness at level 1 trauma centers ($450 million); small business stimulus ($180 million); child care revitalization ($100 million) and small business relief ($135 million).

“We will share more about our plans in coming months,” Smith-Ellis said. “We don’t have to spend it all at once. We hope to be prudent and use it over the course of time we have — until 2024.”

“New Jersey essential immigrant workers need an infusion of $1 billion in relief,” said Jorge Torres of the National Day Labor Organizing Network. “Essential immigrant workers kept working, many got sick and many died so New Jerseyans could stay home safe.”

He said there are 165,000 undocumented immigrant parents and 127,000 undocumented children in the state, and they have received none of the federal payments others have received and have not been included in aid in the 2022 state budget.

Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice focused on increasing poll worker pay to $400 per day — about double the current rate at a cost of about $13.6 million for the general election.

She and Jesse Burns of the League of Women Voters also asked the state to use funds to purchase new voting machines for counties, do more to encourage voting by mail and improve the state’s Voter Registration System.<

Retro Fitness’ Robbie Sprechman asked for direct aid to gym owners, many of whom are barely surviving after six months of closure and nine months of severe limits on operating.

“The investment to open a gym is $2 million. That’s a substantial loss on closure,” Sprechman said.

Several people asked for premium pay for various essential workers.

Frank Crivelli of the state corrections officers’ union PBA Local 105 asked for a $75 per eight-hour shift premium but did not estimate the total cost.

Republicans, who decried Murphy’s 2022 state budget for failing to provide funds to update outdated computer systems at the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission and Labor Department, and for failing to replenish the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, have stressed the need to spend the federal funds on those priorities.

State Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic; and Sen. Sam Thompson, R-Burlington, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, both Republican members of the Senate Budget Committee, said in a news release this week they have submitted written testimony requesting the administration use $2.5 billion to stabilize the Unemployment Insurance Fund to avoid more tax increases on businesses; and $1 billion to support small businesses and nonprofits.

They also requested $500 million to modernize decades-old IT systems, including but not limited to UI and MVC systems “that provide unacceptably poor service to citizens and do not have the capacity to handle impacts from COVID-19 and future pandemics.”

Their other priorities included $500 million in additional rental relief, $1.5 billion for capital projects and $500 million for school funding.