NJ spending COVID money on Hall of Fame, French art, UFC fight
🔴 The Joint Budget Oversight Committee approved another $154.2 million in COVID relief spending
🔴 Chairman Sen. Paul Sarlo admitted there were items members would question
🔴 Republican State Sen. Declan O'Scanlon voted to abstain
The legislature's Joint Budget Oversight Committee Friday approved another $154.2 million in spending for 42 items paid for by American Rescue Plan funds, which a leading Democrat acknowledged includes some questionable items.
"There are some appropriations that I think everyone on this call would respectfully disagree with," state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, the committee chairman, said during the meeting held via Zoom.
The intention of the money was to provide financial relief for state, county and local agencies that faced strains on their budget during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. States were given "substantial flexibility" in how to spend the funds.
Every state was given a portion of $350 billion in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds in 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan with a deadline to submit its spending plan by the end of 2024. New Jersey received $6.4 billion and has so far spent $1.1 billion.
New Jersey's first round of spending released in January included $521,783 for eight new SUVs and $5 million to buy baby formula to distribute to "families in need." New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority used $3.5 million to promote Saturday's UFC 288 event at the Prudential Center.
More questionable spending
💵 Items on the second list submitted Friday by the Murphy Administration include:
💵 $12 million for the New Jersey Hall of Fame at the American Dream
💵 $10 million for the Centre Pompidou x Jersey City, a satellite French art museum in Jersey City
💵 New vehicles for State Police and Franklin Township in Somerset County
💵 Hospital upgrades
The proposal was approved with an abstention from state Sen. Declan O'Scanlon, R-Monmouth, who criticized the process and lack of public input. O'Scanlon called it a "weird moment" for him when deciding how he would vote.
"They did include some funding that I have advocated for publicly for a long time. I couldn't vote yes to it with all the flaws that are still in the package. But I couldn't vote no either given the indications that we're going to work together going forward and the fact that they've started to fund some Republican priorities," O'Scanlon said.
One of his concerns was that most schools and municipalities were not getting help from the fund.
"Why do all the other school districts and municipalities get screwed? That's not how the system is supposed to work. Money goes to the pet projects of powerful legislators and everybody else gets screwed. In democracy, that's not how it's supposed to work," he said.
He also questions the need for a Joint Budget Oversight Committee. It was created during the pandemic to expedite measures without budget hearings. But because the Murphy Administration has not distributed the funds there is no longer a sense of urgency about getting the money out, according to O'Scanlon.
"This process sucks. Lack of transparency sucks. And there's no reason anymore for this process to be involved in doling this money out. It should go through the budget committees. That's how it should be done at this point." O'Scanlon said.
Wouldn't a no vote have been in line with O'Scanlon's longtime criticism of how the governor has handled the pandemic?
"You can make the argument that I should have cast a no vote and it's not an unreasonable one. I decided at the time that I couldn't quite go that far with the pledge. And I had direct conversations with Senate president and the budget chairman that we're going to improve this process and work together more going forward and Republican input will be substantially taken into account," he said.
"If the process and the funded items don't get better and more responsible you'll see no votes for me going forward. So it's a work in progress and I am pushing like hell to make that progress valuable. I will not waver in that effort."
Dan Alexander is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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