If used as intended by the Biden administration, the state fiscal recovery funds granted to New Jersey through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to advance racial equity by investing in communities that were hardest hit by the pandemic and historically left behind in the lawmaking process. Yet, despite repeated calls from policy experts, community leaders, and advocates to prioritize disproportionately harmed residents, elected leaders have failed to deliver adequate direct relief to those who need it most.
With less than $1 billion remaining, New Jersey’s unique opportunity to provide immediate and meaningful relief to these families and communities is quickly slipping away. As Governor Murphy and lawmakers decide how to use the remaining funds, let’s not forget the “Rescue” in the American Rescue Plan. There are a lot of workers and families still struggling who would benefit from:
- Direct relief for immigrant workers
- Hazard pay for essential workers
- Rental assistance for those facing eviction
- Cash assistance for residents who maxed out their TANF benefits
Transparency Not Treated as a Priority
Based on current, available documentation, each new allocation of ARP funds in the latest budget lacks any kind of description, meaning there is no way to tell who exactly benefits from hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of spending. For example, lawmakers allocated $300 million to water infrastructure, but without basic details it’s unclear which communities will benefit and which will be left behind.
In other cases, the allocation goes to a new or existing program that will require ongoing funding, drawing into question the state’s commitment toward its success once the federal funds are gone. Case in point: The state’s only public hospital received $50 million for a building assessment plan, but with no guarantee that the plan will be implemented.
The lack of information on ARP allocations also calls into question whether some of these investments were necessary at all — especially for funds sent to private institutions that should have plenty of resources to cover the costs themselves. For example, $13 million has been granted to two health systems for “hospital infrastructure” and workforce education.
The truth is: we’re nervous.
Despite ongoing requests to address the harms of the pandemic itself and the economic and social aftermath, the transparency with which final decisions are made has been dismal. The public, in fact, has not been granted a meaningful process by which to weigh in on how the remaining dollars are spent and, based on the uneven quality of issuances so far, that must change.
Lawmakers can start by allowing public testimony at future JBOC hearings — consistent with most other legislative committee hearings — so that policy experts, essential workers, and community leaders alike can weigh in on ARP spending proposals before they’re approved.