With only a fraction of New Jersey’s federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds remaining, a diverse coalition of labor unions, essential workers, and advocates called for more transparency in how funds are spent — and for lawmakers to provide direct relief to workers and families harmed most by the pandemic.
“If used correctly, these federal funds provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in families and communities harmed most by the pandemic,” said Sheila Reynertson, Senior Policy Analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP). “But with more than $5 billion appropriated behind closed doors and few details available to the public, lawmakers must do a better job of providing direct relief to workers, families, and communities who need the most help, and in a transparent manner that invites public input before new spending is approved.”
Roughly 85 percent of the state’s $6.2 billion in ARP funds have already been appropriated without an opportunity for members of the public to weigh in on proposals before they’re approved. Unlike typical legislative hearings where policy experts, community members, and advocates have an opportunity to testify on proposals before they’re voted on, ARP funds have been approved either by Governor Murphy or members of the Joint Budget Oversight Committee without a chance for members of the public to provide feedback.
“We urge transparency in the State’s decision-making and allocation process for these remaining funds, and that New Jersey use these funds to bolster the financial recovery and stability of countless residents still reeling from the pandemic’s economic fallout,” said Maura Collinsgru, Director of Policy and Advocacy at New Jersey Citizen Action. “This includes $500 million for the 120,000 eviction prevention applicants who have not yet received financial assistance to remain in their homes, extending funding for families who received general or emergency assistance during the pandemic and now face termination in order to sustain their recovery, and expanding staffing and infrastructure in anticipation of the Public Health Emergency’s end so none of our 2 million residents enrolled in NJ FamilyCare are left behind. We cannot ignore now many New Jerseyans’ ongoing pandemic recovery or risk undoing much of the hard work of the last two years.”
Even after ARP funds are appropriated, the public documents detailing the approved projects often lack any meaningful description of where the funds will go. For example, lawmakers allocated $300 million worth of ARP funds to water infrastructure, but without basic details, it’s unclear which communities will benefit. Another $300 million was granted to Rutgers University, but only thanks to a reporter’s diligence did we learn that a third of it will pay for new sports facilities.
“Essential workers like me saved lives during the pandemic — we shouldn’t have to worry about how to make rent or put food on the table,” said Mariana Velasquez of Make the Road – New Jersey. “But with increasing inflation, we are struggling to survive. Our elected officials have a choice: They can ignore the issues impacting our communities, or they can use remaining federal funds to provide critical relief to essential workers through hazard pay and a permanent expansion of the safety net.”
More than $2.4 billion of ARP funds were appropriated in the latest state budget that took effect July 1. These appropriations did not include direct relief for immigrant workers, hazard pay for essential workers, rental assistance, or cash assistance for residents living in poverty who maxed out their benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
“The fight for hazard pay for essential workers is one that needs to be a priority for the State of New Jersey,” said Kevin Brown, Executive Vice President and New Jersey State Director for SEIU 32BJ. “Essential workers and their families are in great need of recognition and change. They deserve fair compensation for providing a safe and reliable environment for commercial tenants and apartment residents while putting themselves, their coworkers, and their families at enormous risk. Hazard pay for essential workers is a crucial step towards equity and fairness in the Garden State, and these issues need to be discussed openly and with transparency.”
“The American Rescue Plan dollars have the opportunity to be transformative for long-festering needs where lack of investment was exacerbated by the shock of the pandemic’s impacts,” said Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey. “More than two years after the onset of the pandemic, those needs are still there and we should have a more transparent process to give people the chance to publicly testify to the JBOC committee on the proposed spending plans. There are clear needs for our state’s environment and infrastructure from crumbling water infrastructure and lead service lines and the need for more reliable NJ Transit bus and rail service – and the public should have more of an opportunity to weigh in.”
“The State must invest $30 million to fund a comprehensive Language Access Bill ensuring that government meets the needs of our diverse families through timely, accurate translation and interpretation,” said Laura Bustamante, Policy and Campaign Manager at New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “At no time was this need more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. New Jersey is a leader in the diversity and size of our immigrant communities, so it is fitting that we are now leading with the country’s most expansive language access proposal. We expect nothing less than a transparent process from our government on how this ARP funding will be allocated and demand that it be allocated to programs like these that support the resilience and recovery of our communities.”
“Our children continue to struggle with the impact of the pandemic — we urge the Governor to devote a small portion of remaining ARP funds to expand community school approaches to more high-poverty public schools throughout our state,” said Greg Stankiewicz, statewide coordinator of the New Jersey Community Schools Coalition. “Moreover, we stand with our colleagues in calling for increased transparency in how the Governor and Legislature distribute these vital federal recovery funds.”
“Given the opaque process and very limited time for public input, we worry that the public’s best interest will not be prioritized,” said Joe Marchica, Co-Chair of Our Revolution Trenton Mercer. “Direct aid is the most beneficial economic stimulus method, both for people in need and the whole economy. We ask for substantial funding for hazard pay, undocumented New Jerseyans, and aid sent directly to low- and no-income people. That’s what should take priority — not more corporate tax breaks and kickbacks.”
“We are at a critical juncture when it comes to funding climate, lead service line replacements, waste water and drinking water infrastructure, mass transit not highway expansions,” said Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey State Director of Clean Water Action. “ARP funds must be used wisely to expand the Garden State’s capacity to create family-supporting green jobs, protect our communities from harm, and lift up people and places that have largely been left behind or out of the economy in the past because of the color of their skin or the ZIP code they live in.”
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For The Many NJ is a statewide coalition of more than 30 organizations working to expand funding for essential services and improve budget practices to meet current and future needs, especially for communities that have been historically left behind.