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DiMaio: $53 million settlement a start, not a substitute for accountability

(The Center Square) – The state’s $53 million settlement with the families of veterans who died in state-run homes is being characterized by a prominent state Republican as a start but not a replacement for “answers and accountability.”

The state agreed to pay roughly $53 million to families of veterans who died during the COVID pandemic’s early days. The settlement covers 119 residents who died during early outbreaks at the Menlo Park and Paramus Veterans Memorial Homes.

News broke as Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, departed the state for a Costa Rica vacation.

“It is rather convenient that this news breaks just as the governor jets off to Costa Rica on vacation, but we want the veterans’ families to know that we won’t let the Murphy administration off the hook for simply settling out of court,” Assembly Republican Leader-Elect John DiMaio, R-Warren, said in a statement. “There are 205 American heroes who died in the state-run veterans homes. All of their loved ones deserve justice.”

New Jersey Senate Republicans have requested an investigation into the state’s COVID-19 response. On Tuesday, all 15 members of the Senate Republican Caucus signed a letter to Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, calling for a select committee with subpoena powers.

On March 31, 2020, the New Jersey Department of Health issued a directive barring nursing homes from turning away patients who tested positive for COVID-19. The mandate, which was subsequently rescinded, mirrored one issued in New York.

In October 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil-rights investigation into how veterans’ homes handled the COVID outbreak, which DiMaio indicated focused on the Menlo Park and Paramus facilities. Separately, the state attorney general is taking a broader look at how New Jersey’s long-term care facilities responded to the pandemic, DiMaio said.

“The true colossal failure during the pandemic has been the administration’s directives that killed hundreds in our veterans homes. From the lack of infection control to threatening employees who wore masks, it’s time the public finds out the truth from our taxpayer-funded health officials through legislative hearings,” DiMaio said. “While the current investigations are needed and absolutely warranted, they provide little comfort to those of us who want to make sure our veterans are now being protected and provided the best care following the senseless tragedies.”

The state runs veterans homes in Menlo Park, Paramus and Vineland. DiMaio said that the Menlo Park home recorded 103 resident deaths, while Paramus reported 89 and Vineland 13.

Murphy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Feds send more than $23.8 million in tax dollars to New Jersey schools, libraries

(The Center Square) – New Jersey schools and libraries will receive more than $23.8 million in federal tax dollars to help students and teachers stay connected.

The money is from the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Connectivity Fund Program (ECF). The latest funds are from the program’s fifth and sixth funding rounds; in total, the state has received more than $96 million from the fund.

The nearly $7.2 billion ECF program was part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which President Joe Biden signed into law in March.

“Schools and libraries in New Jersey continue to receive critical funding from the American Rescue Plan that will help ensure every student and teacher can stay connected to their classroom,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, said in a news release. “In drafting the Emergency Connectivity Fund with my colleagues, we focused the program on helping to get broadband service and devices into the hands of the students, teachers, and library patrons who need them,” he added.

“This funding, like the awards approved in the last three months, will help students do their homework, research, and complete at-home projects long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over,” Pallone added. “This funding is a critical investment in the future of young people in our state, and I will continue to work to ensure that access to broadband and technology is not a barrier to learning for any student.”

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Business leaders implore New Jersey lawmakers to focus on making the state more affordable

(The Center Square) – In the state legislature’s waning days, business leaders say lawmakers should focus on making New Jersey more affordable rather than pushing through legislation that may need to be rectified in the future.

That was the message expressed during a press conference earlier this month.

“Following a surprising Election Day where many of our legislators noted they heard the voters’ cry for affordability and that they were committed to answering that call, well, here we are some six weeks later, and we’re facing a constant flow of bills that, frankly, fly in the face of what’s been promised by our policymakers,” New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) President and CEO Michele Siekerka said during a virtual press conference earlier this month.

“New Jersey still has the third-highest unemployment rate in the country. NJBIA’s business outlook survey showed concerns about how long small business owners want to keep their businesses, with almost two-thirds of those who were asked saying they will either exit earlier than predicted or right now were unsure how long they’ll continue their business,” Siekerka added. “We continue to experience an unprecedented hiring crisis. We still have the highest property, income and corporate business taxes in the nation, and COVID continues to bring more uncertainty as to what the working environment will look like for at least the next year or two to come.”

During November’s election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli performed better than political pundits expected, giving incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, a run for his money. Elsewhere, political newcomer Republican Edward Durr knocked off Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, perhaps the biggest upset in the state this political season.

New Jersey lawmakers don’t seem keen to quietly ride out the lame-duck session despite the political shockwaves.

Participants in the virtual press conference pointed to several bills they said were anti-business, including A-5720/S-3667, which codifies energy goals in the 2019 Energy Master Plan without a cost analysis, and S-4214, which critics say would diminish how much consideration the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel would give to the cost of a proposal for consumers.

“Who’s looking at the cost burdens of business? Nobody,” Tom Bracken, president & CEO of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, said during the press conference.

“So let’s really start to look at these struggles that we’re having; let’s address the struggles we’re having,” Bracken added. “We cannot afford to have these bills go through. It’s only going to aggravate the situation. It’s really time; it’s way past time to address this.”

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How the Property Crime Rate in New Jersey Compares to the Nation

Communities and police departments across the United States are grappling with rising rates of deadly violence, as the U.S. murder rate reached its highest level in nearly two and a half decades in 2020. Despite the recent surge in homicides, however, most Americans face a far higher risk of being the victim of crimes that do not involve violence.

Property crimes, a broad category of theft-related offenses, are by far the most commonly reported of all major crimes in the United States, accounting for over 80% of the most serious offenses tracked and reported by the FBI. Property crimes fall into one of three categories: larceny, burglary, and vehicle theft.

Larceny is defined as the unlawful taking of property — pickpocketing and shoplifting being two common examples. Burglary, defined as the illegal entry of a structure to commit a crime, such as theft, is the most severe form of property crime tracked by the FBI. Vehicle-theft, meanwhile, is a crime that can be either the theft, or the attempted theft, of a vehicle, such a car, motorcycle, or ATV.

There were a total of 102,875 property crimes reported in New Jersey in 2020. Adjusting for population, there were 1,158 property crimes for every 100,000 people, the fifth lowest property crime rate among states and lower than the national rate of 1,958 per 100,000 people.

Larceny is by far the most commonly reported property crime nationwide. The same pattern holds in New Jersey, where larceny accounted for about 77% of all major nonviolent offenses in 2020. Burglary, meanwhile, comprised about 13% of reported property crimes in the state, and motor vehicle theft accounted for 10%.

All data in this story, including population estimates used to calculate crime rates, are from the FBI.

RankStateProperty crimes per 100k people, 2020Total poperty crimes, 20201Louisiana2,884133,9892New Mexico2,84259,8593Colorado2,834164,5824Washington2,732210,2235South Carolina2,721141,9876Oklahoma2,706107,7057Oregon2,659112,7828Arkansas2,61379,2009Missouri2,531155,69810Tennessee2,493171,67511Utah2,46480,09112Hawaii2,41133,92813Alaska2,26116,52814Texas2,245659,16015Arizona2,228165,32316North Carolina2,227236,02617Kansas2,19964,07718California2,139842,05419Alabama2,137105,16120Minnesota2,125120,21221North Dakota2,12416,25622Montana2,12122,91723Mississippi2,10262,35124Georgia2,007214,98825Delaware1,96119,35526South Dakota1,95717,46827Nevada1,92760,46228Nebraska1,90936,99129Ohio1,850216,36330Indiana1,783120,45331Kentucky1,78079,67332Florida1,769384,55633Iowa1,69853,72534Pennsylvania1,644210,16735Wyoming1,6119,37936Maryland1,61097,48737Connecticut1,56555,67038Illinois1,559196,28739Wisconsin1,48686,65440Virginia1,456125,11441New York1,411272,78842West Virginia1,39924,97643Michigan1,361135,63344Rhode Island1,24613,16645Vermont1,2177,58646New Jersey1,158102,87547Maine1,15615,61048Idaho1,11220,31349New Hampshire1,09915,01450Massachusetts1,05372,602

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New Jersey considers allocating nearly $5.2 million for school security upgrades

(The Center Square) – State officials want to allocate $5.15 million for school security upgrades in New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy and Acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan submitted the request as part of the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act (SOCFBA). State legislators must approve the request.

“This second round of awards will make an additional 60 schools across the state more secure from the mountains of Warren County to the beaches of Cape May,” Allen-McMillan said in a news release.

Proposed upgrades include various school security measures, including surveillance cameras, shatter-resistant glass and remote locking and unlocking doors. It also includes silent panic alarms required under Alyssa’s Law, which lawmakers passed in 2019.

SOCFBA funding is from $500 million in bonds New Jersey voters approved in November 2018.

“Revitalizing New Jersey schools’ infrastructure is paramount to the safety of students and staff. Alyssa’s Law was a blueprint for school security systems and safety measures,” state Sen. Ron Rice, D-Newark, said in an announcement. “This second round of funding will expand the safety procedures that have already been established and fund districts across the state that truly need it.”

In May, Murphy submitted the initial $317.2 million of SOCFBA project proposals to lawmakers, and in July, the governor signed legislation to appropriate the money. The money went to school security, water infrastructure improvements, and career and technical education (CTE) in county vocational-technical school districts and county colleges.

Details about the third round will be announced later. The governor announced the money request last week; he is currently on vacation in Costa Rica.

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NJ Transit proceeding with $595 million project to replace Raritan River Bridge

(The Center Square) – NJ Transit is moving forward with a $595 million project to replace the moveable, swing-span Raritan River Bridge between Perth Amboy and South Amboy.

The 2,920-foot-long bridge, often called River Draw, was built in 1908 and is the only rail link for 17 of the North Jersey Coast Line’s 20 stations. Superstorm Sandy damaged the structure, submerging it and disrupting rail service and marine traffic for 18 days as crews realigned and repaired the bridge.

NJ Transit is seeking bids for the second contract as part of the replacement project. Last year, NJ Transit awarded a roughly $248 million contract to Farmingdale-based George Harms Construction for the initial construction phase of the project.

The bridge overhaul is part of the agency’s Resilience Program it launched following Hurricane Sandy to improve infrastructure and transit systems. In 2014, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave NJ Transit a $1.3 billion grant, of which $446.3 million goes toward the Raritan River Bridge project.

NJ Transit “has continued to advance critical infrastructure projects such as the Raritan River Bridge throughout the pandemic, which is essential to delivering safe and reliable transit services for generations to come,” Kevin S. Corbet, the agency’s president and CEO, said in an announcement.

The agency will accept electronic bids until March 24, 2022, from companies that previously submitted special prequalification and have met the qualifications. The North Jersey Coast Line serves roughly 11,400 daily customers, while Conrail moves 2 million tons of freight over the line.

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Here’s How Life Expectancy in New Jersey Compares to the Nation

Life expectancy is one of the most important and commonly cited indicators of population health — and in the United States, life expectancy is falling at a historic rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy at birth declined by 1.5 years in 2020, the largest one-year decline since World War II.

The CDC attributes the decline to the COVID-19 pandemic and 93,000 drug overdose deaths — an all-time one-year high. Homicide, diabetes, and liver disease were also contributing factors. Here is a look at the states with the most drug overdose deaths in 2020.

While the national trend is alarming, there are considerable regional variations in life expectancy across the country.

As of 2019, the most recent available year of state-level data, life expectancy at birth in New Jersey is 80.5 years, the eighth highest among states and higher than the comparable national average of 79.2 years.

Both at an individual and population level, life expectancy is closely linked to certain economic factors. For example, lower-income Americans are less able to afford adequate health care or a range of healthy options related to diet and lifestyle. Recent studies have shown that life expectancy among the wealthiest 1% of Americans exceeds that of the poorest 1% by well over a decade. This general pattern holds in New Jersey, where the typical household earns $85,751 a year, far more than the national median household income of $65,712.

Data on average life expectancy at birth is from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute joint program’s 2021 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report. Additional data is from both CHR and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

RankStateLife expectancy at birth (yrs.)Adults who smoke (%)Median household income ($)Poverty rate (%)1Hawaii82.314.483,1029.32California81.711.580,44011.83New York81.413.072,10813.04Connecticut80.912.578,83310.04Minnesota80.915.574,5939.06Massachusetts80.613.785,8439.46Colorado80.614.777,1279.38New Jersey80.513.285,7519.29Washington80.412.178,6879.810Florida80.214.959,22712.711Utah80.19.175,7808.912Arizona80.014.562,05513.513Oregon79.915.767,05811.414Rhode Island79.815.271,16910.814Vermont79.814.763,00110.216North Dakota79.719.764,57710.616New Hampshire79.716.677,9337.318Nebraska79.616.663,2299.918Virginia79.615.176,4569.920Wisconsin79.517.264,16810.421Illinois79.415.969,18711.521Idaho79.415.060,99911.221Iowa79.417.461,69111.224Texas79.214.264,03413.624Maryland79.212.686,7389.026Alaska79.018.575,46310.127Montana78.918.957,15312.627South Dakota78.920.259,53311.927Wyoming78.919.265,00310.130Nevada78.715.763,27612.530Maine78.719.458,92410.932Pennsylvania78.517.963,46312.032Kansas78.517.962,08711.432Delaware78.517.470,17611.335North Carolina78.117.957,34113.635Michigan78.120.159,58413.037New Mexico78.015.951,94518.238Georgia77.916.361,98013.339Missouri77.320.157,40912.940South Carolina77.118.756,22713.840Indiana77.121.757,60311.942Ohio77.021.458,64213.143Louisiana76.121.151,07319.043Arkansas76.123.748,95216.243Oklahoma76.119.954,44915.246Tennessee76.020.856,07113.947Kentucky75.624.152,29516.347Alabama75.620.051,73415.549Mississippi74.921.045,79219.650West Virginia74.826.948,85016.0

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New Jersey to update its state freight rail plan in 2022

(The Center Square) – New Jersey officials will update the State Freight Plan (SFP) over the next year, a move that could help the state access millions in federal dollars.

The plan was developed as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act enacted in 2015. It requires states to update their freight plans every five years, and New Jersey officials plan to build off the state’s 2017 freight plan for the 2022 update.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) gave New Jersey roughly $900,000 through its State Planning and Research program to fund the plan’s development. Updating the plan gives New Jersey access to funding from the National Highway Freight Program and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) recently signed into law by President Joe Biden.

“The 2022 SFP will include multimodal freight planning, infrastructure improvements, rail and marine highway planning, support state and regional policy goals, and support planning partners and freight industry stakeholders serving New Jersey and the NJDOT,” Jim Barry, director of communications for the NJ Department of Transportation (NJDOT), told The Center Square.

A news release from Gov. Phil Murphy said the state would “make the movement of goods to and from the ports a key focal point” as part of the 2022 revision.

“We are fortunate that New Jersey is not experiencing the same supply chain problems that are putting a choke hold on the flow of goods and services in other states,” state Sen. Joe Cryan, D-Union, said in a news release last week. “It’s not blind luck – we have dug in and done the work needed to maintain and upgrade the state’s infrastructure.”

According to the state’s Department of Transportation, New Jersey has roughly 1,000 miles of freight rail lines. The state must submit its updated freight rail plan to the FHWA by December 2022.

Additionally, the NJDOT’s Rail Freight Assistance Program, funded through the state Transportation Trust Fund, provides millions of dollars annually to improve freight rail statewide. Earlier this year, NJDOT handed out $29 million in grants for 10 rail projects across the Garden State.

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Murphy signs legislation to extend New Jersey’s utility shutoff grace period

(The Center Square) – Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation to extend New Jersey’s utility shutoff grace period.

S-4081 extends the grace period Murphy established with Executive Order No. 246 from Dec. 31 until March 15, 2022. The grace period applies to water, municipal electric and sewer customers.

“The goal of this law is to give individuals an extended grace period to be able to pay those bills without the threat of losing their water,” state Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden/Gloucester, said in an announcement.

The measure mandates that utilities offer a 12-month, no down payment and interest-free payment plan to customers before disconnecting service or imposing liens for non-payment accrued since the start of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

“Through our extension of the utility shutoff grace period, we are giving customers an additional opportunity to work with their utility provider to enroll in an equitable payment option that ensures their critical, and in some cases life-preserving, services remain in operation,” Murphy said in an announcement.

Under the legislation, the Department of Community Affairs will launch a Winter Termination Program for water, sewer and municipal electric customers. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) will also include water and sewer public utilities in its Winter Termination Program.

The programs will take effect in the 2022-23 winter season.

The expansion “means more households will have the opportunity to contact their utilities to set up a payment plan or to apply for one of the many assistance programs the state has available,” NJBPU President Joseph L. Fiordaliso said in an announcement.

The state Assembly and the state Senate passed the bill unanimously this week.

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Port Authority approves $7.9 billion budget

(The Center Square) – The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey board approved a $7.9 billion budget for 2022.

The spending plan includes $3.4 billion for operating expenses, $2.7 billion for capital spending and $1.8 billion for debt service and deferred expenses.

In a news release, Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton called the budget “disciplined and responsible.”

Cotton continued: “The budget recognizes the very difficult financial environment while providing the needed resources to enable the agency to carry out its responsibilities and accommodate the growing volume of travelers.”

The 2022 budget’s $3.4 billion for operating expenses is a 6.6%, or $211 million, increase over the 2021 budget. The $2.7 billion for capital spending is a 13%, or $316 million, increase over the 2021 budget.

The authority’s 2021 operating expense budget reduced the headcount by 7%, which the agency said totaled 626 positions. The 2022 budget maintains the same headcount.

Its $1.8 billion debt service and deferred expense budget for 2022 is a 4.5% increase over 2021, or $74 million.

The agency’s assets include John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH).

While PATH fares and tolls for autos and trucks will not increase in 2022, tolls for buses will increase by $3 per bus starting Jan. 3, 2022, under a toll increase the board adopted in September 2019. The AirTrain will also see an “automatic inflation increase” of 25 cents starting in March 2022.