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Bill would advocate for more federal jobs, investments in New Jersey

(The Center Square) – The New Jersey Assembly Appropriations Committee voted 11-0 to approve a bill to advocate for more permanent federal jobs in the state.

A-2260 would create an independent office within the state Department of Treasury to advocate for federal jobs and additional federal investments. A governor-appointed officer will explore and provide “semi-annual reports” on federal jobs and opportunities.

Under the bill, the office would target “civilian military missions for research, development, acquisition, test, and evaluation.” It would also focus on attracting “non-military federal missions and jobs” while working to keep current federal jobs.

“The federal government creates jobs and projects throughout the country. New Jersey residents can benefit greatly by us bringing these jobs and projects to our state,” Assemblyman Ron Dancer, R-Ocean, said in a news release. “With its convenient location and abundant resources and talent, bringing federal jobs to the Garden State is a win-win for everyone.”

The new office could tap other state offices to help with its duties.

In June, the Senate Economic Growth Committee advanced its version of the bill, S-1778. According to a previous news release, the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP) and the Legislative Manufacturing Caucus of New Jersey voiced their support for the measure.

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Lawmakers introducing legislation to stop New Jersey toll hikes

(The Center Square) – Lawmakers plan to push legislation to stop toll hikes on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA) said it would raise tolls by 3% starting Jan. 1, the second toll increase in as many years. The South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) also plans to increase tolls on the Atlantic City Expressway by 3%, according to reports.

The NJTA’s fiscal 2022 budget anticipates $2.3 billion in revenue. The agency expects an 8.4% increase in toll revenue on the New Jersey Turnpike and a 5.4% increase on the Garden State Parkway over the fiscal 2021 budget, driven by increased traffic volumes from a year ago.

“The toll hike was a sneak attack on New Jersey drivers at a time when the state’s already high cost of living is soaring under near-record inflation levels,” state Assemblyman Greg McGuckin, R-Toms River, said in a statement. “It is an insult to every driver, and an assault on the wallets of working families everywhere, especially those who live in coastal communities to commute to work every day on toll roads.”

McGuckin and Assemblyman John Catalano, R-Brick, plan to introduce a measure in the state Assembly. On Monday, state Sen. Nia Gill, D-Montclair, introduced S-4276 to prohibit NJTA from implementing automatic toll increases and increasing tolls for three years.

“I think everybody who commutes on the Turnpike or Garden State Parkway was blindsided by the announcement that tolls would increase for the second time in a little over a year,” state Sen. Jim Holzapfel, R-Toms River, said in a statement. Holzapfel plans to join S-4276 as a co-sponsor.

“There was no discussion about it, no public hearings, no transparency,” Holzapfel added. “This is a tax on driving, and it is a disgrace that in a state with some of the highest taxes in the nation, the bureaucrats at the Turnpike Authority would stoop so low to sneak verbiage in a contract that provides for annual and automatic increases.”

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Bill would increase penalty for assaulting transit employees in New Jersey

(The Center Square) – The New Jersey Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities has advanced legislation to increase the penalty for anyone who assaults a bus operator or passenger railroad employee in the state.

Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex, co-sponsored A-6013, the Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act, in response to what he says is an increasing number of attacks on NJ Transit employees.

Currently, assaulting a transit employee is a fourth-degree crime unless the victim suffers bodily injury. The legislation would make it a third-degree crime.

“Since the pandemic, mass transit employees have put their lives on the line while being asked to do more than ever before,” Wirths said in a news release.

“We need to do a better job of protecting our front-line mass transit workers while sending a strong message to passengers that assaults will be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” Wirths added. “Upgrading fines and implementing additional safety measures will go a long way toward ensuring a smoother ride for employees and law-abiding passengers alike.”

The bill also authorizes NJ Transit, motorbus companies and passenger railroads to ban riders for up to one year for all assaults. They may ban a rider for life if a deadly weapon is used.

In November, the Senate Transportation Committee passed its version of the measure, S-4071.

According to NJ Transit, the agency reported 82 assaults of bus operators between January and September 2021 and 52 assaults of rail crews during that time. The agency reported 81 assaults of bus operators and 32 assaults of rail crews during the same period in 2020.

The agency said it made 45 crew assault arrests between January and September 2021, up from 26 arrests during the same period in 2020.

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New Jersey committee advances bill to codify energy goals

(The Center Square) – The New Jersey Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee advanced a bill to codify the state’s Energy Master Plan (EMP) energy goals.

On Thursday, the committee voted 4-2 to advance A-5720/S-3667, which would codify various goals for electric vehicles and the transportation sector. Among the goals, by 2025, NJ Transit must have a prototype of a battery-electric train in development, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey must emit 35% less greenhouse gas than it did in 2006.

New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) Vice President of Government Affairs Ray Cantor said the legislation gives the governor the authority to set New Jersey’s energy policy.

“By giving this administration complete discretion to set energy policy under an undefined clean energy standard the committee is saying we don’t care if our residents or businesses can afford to pay their energy bills, or have reliable energy in the future,” Cantor said in a statement.

“It is highly disappointing that this committee is essentially creating a pathway to allow a ban on all future natural gas generation to produce electricity – despite the fact that natural gas has helped New Jersey meet its carbon reduction goals, is essential for grid reliability, and is actually needed to secure both wind and solar power generation,” Cantor added.

The EMP aims to put the state on pace to use 100% clean energy by 2050. However, groups have questioned the plan’s cost, and the Garden State Initiative (GSI) released a report that found it is unclear whether the EMP will reduce emissions or what it might cost New Jersey taxpayers.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s office has not released a cost estimate for the plan.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, R-Boonton, said Murphy and Democrats in the state legislature are working to reduce scrutiny of the EMP.

He points to newly introduced legislation, S-4214, which he says would diminish how much consideration the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel would give to the cost of a proposal for consumers. The rate counsel serves as an independent advocate representing consumers when gas and electric companies submit proposed rate increases to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities for approval.

“Governor Murphy’s proposed Energy Master Plan would cost New Jerseyans hundreds of billions of dollars, but he doesn’t want anyone to know that,” Bucco said in a news release. “The governor and Democrats in the Legislature have concocted a new scheme to hide the cost of their massive energy tax by cooking the books to prevent effective opposition by the public advocate who is responsible for protecting ratepayers.”

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How the Murder Rate in New Jersey Compares to the Rest of the Country

The U.S. murder rate is at its highest level in nearly two and half decades. A total of 21,570 murders were committed nationwide in 2020, up nearly 30% from the previous year — the largest annual increase on record.

The rash of deadly violence came during a tumultuous year in American history. The COVID-19 pandemic led to school closures and left millions of Americans out of work. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer rattled confidence in American law enforcement and sparked nationwide protests. Firearms sales soared, resulting in the proliferation of tens of millions of new guns. Here is a look at the states where gun sales are surging.

Some experts speculate that each of these factors likely played a role in the rising homicide rate. While it may be years before the precise causal factors are identified, the effects are being felt in communities across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists homicide as a contributing factor in the historic 1.5 year decline in life expectancy in the U.S. last year — trailing only COVID-19 and accidental deaths, like drug overdoses, in significance.

There were a total of 329 murders in New Jersey in 2020, or 3.7 for every 100,000 people — the 15th lowest murder rate among states. For comparison, the national homicide rate stands at 6.5 per 100,000.

Along with rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, murder is one component of the broader violent crime category. Just as New Jersey has a lower than average murder rate, its overall violent crime rate is also lower than average. There were a total of 195 violent crimes reported for every 100,000 people in the state in 2020, compared to 399 per 100,000 nationwide.

All data used in this story, including population figures used to calculate population-adjusted crime rates, is from the FBI’s 2020 Uniform Crime Report.

RankGeoMurders per 100,000 people, 2020Total murders, 2020Violent crimes per 100,000 people, 20201Louisiana15.87346392Missouri11.87235433Arkansas10.63216723Mississippi10.63152915South Carolina10.55495316Alabama9.64714546Tennessee9.66636738Illinois9.11,1514268Maryland9.155340010Georgia8.894340011North Carolina8.085241912Pennsylvania7.91,00939013New Mexico7.816477814Michigan7.675447815Indiana7.550535816Delaware7.47343216Oklahoma7.429645918Kentucky7.232325919Ohio7.082030920Arizona6.951348521Alaska6.74983822Texas6.61,93144722West Virginia6.611735624Virginia6.152420925Florida5.91,29038426Nevada5.718046027California5.62,20344228Wisconsin5.330832329Colorado5.129442330Montana5.05447031South Dakota4.54050132New York4.280836432North Dakota4.23232934Connecticut3.914018234Washington3.930129436New Jersey3.732919537Nebraska3.66933438Iowa3.511130439Kansas3.410042539Minnesota3.419027841Utah3.110226141Wyoming3.11823443Rhode Island3.03223144Hawaii2.94125444Oregon2.912529246Massachusetts2.316030947Idaho2.24124347Vermont2.21417349Maine1.62210950New Hampshire0.912146

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New Jersey man sentenced for defrauding Paycheck Protection Program

(The Center Square) – A federal judge sentenced a Middlesex County man to two-and-a-half years in prison for fraudulently receiving Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds and depositing a “stolen and altered” treasury check.

According to federal prosecutors, Bernard Lopez, 40, of Sayreville, previously pleaded guilty to bank fraud and theft of government funds.

Prosecutors say Lopez deposited the treasury check for $211,886 into a corporate bank account he established under the name of Pezlo Management LLC. Lopez withdrew the money from the account “before the bank could detect the fraud,” according to a news release.

They also say Lopez submitted a PPP application on behalf of a company he said he controlled.

According to a news release, he claimed the company had 25 employees and had a monthly payroll of about $192,000, and additional utility and mortgage/lease expenses. However, prosecutors say the company did not have any employees or payroll or utility expenses.

A bank approved the loan application and provided the purported business with $481,502 in PPP money, which prosecutors say Lopez used, in part, for personal use.

In addition to the 30-month prison term, U.S. District Judge Peter G. Sheridan sentenced Lopez to three years of supervised release and ordered restitution of $137,000 and forfeiture of $481,502.

Congress created the PPP loans to help businesses struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Feds sending $15 million to help New Jersey’s tourism sector

(The Center Square) – The federal government is sending more than $15.3 million to help New Jersey’s tourism industry rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money is part of the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) $750 million American Rescue Plan Travel, Tourism & Outdoor Recreation program. The initiative includes $510 million in State Tourism grants.

On Wednesday, the EDA announced $196 million in grants to 24 states and territories, including New Jersey. Last month, the agency announced $314 million in grants to 34 states and the District of Columbia.

“The State Tourism grants give states and territories the flexible opportunity to boost their local tourism industry and ensure that jobs are restored and tourists return safely,” Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo said in an announcement.

The money will go toward marketing campaigns to promote state and regional assets, workforce training and infrastructure projects in New Jersey. Officials say the “investment” will reduce damage to the travel, tourism and outdoor recreation industries caused by the pandemic.

Some other regional states, such as New York ($44.9 million) and Pennsylvania ($17 million), received more than New Jersey.

Separately, the state’s tourism division said the state saw “a strong bounce-back summer” this year on the Jersey Shore and specifically in Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean counties. The positive year included a 71% increase in bed tax revenues.

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Bills would allow county elections officials to start counting votes earlier

(The Center Square) – New Jersey lawmakers have introduced legislation to allow county election officials to count mail-in ballots before polls close on Election Day.

State Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips, R-Bergen, introduced A-6143. It would require county boards of elections that tally vote-by-mail ballots before Election Day to guarantee the security and confidentiality of the ballots until polls close.

DePhillips points to this year’s election as proof a change is needed, saying several legislative races and the gubernatorial race remained uncalled for days as election officials counted mail-in ballots.

“When vote tallies are changing drastically, or flipping in favor of one candidate over another, because of a delay in counting mail-in ballots, voters lose trust in the security and integrity of our elections,” DePhillips said in a news release. “This year’s gubernatorial and legislative elections really underscored the importance of correcting the process.

“It is incumbent upon officials to fix the problems that lead to conspiracy theories,” DePhillips added. “Earlier counting of mail-in votes will help address some of this year’s hang-ups.”

Meanwhile, state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, introduced S-4257 to allow county election boards to begin counting mail-in and early voting ballots before Election Day. However, county boards of elections could not start canvassing votes earlier than 24 hours after the early voting period ends.

The bill also allows county boards of elections to begin opening the inner envelopes and canvassing each mail-in ballot from the inner envelopes up to ten days before Election Day. However, it prohibits disclosing the results before polls close for in-person votes.

“Voting is a cornerstone of our democracy. Through our efforts to make voting more accessible via vote by mail and early voting, we have encouraged even more New Jerseyans to participate in the electoral process,” Singleton said in a news release.

“However, this year’s election results were significantly delayed due to the counting of these ballots,” Singleton added. “By allowing county board of elections to begin processing early votes and VBMs before Election Day, we hope to restore timeliness and confidence in the process, while maintaining and upholding election integrity.”

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How Consumer Debt in New Jersey Changed During the Pandemic

At the height of COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s unemployment rate soared to 15%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. The fallout on American workers was immediate as many lost their paychecks or saw their wages plummet overnight. However, broadly speaking, in much of the country, the economic damage from the pandemic did not prove to be as devastating as many first predicted.

The majority of Americans did feel a money crunch, but various surveys show mixed results. Partially because of government stimulus checks, extended unemployment benefits, and a more watchful eye on their spending, Americans appear to have weathered the economic turmoil fairly well — at least so far.

According to the nonprofit think tank Urban Institute, most Americans shored up their bank accounts and kept their spending in check. The median amount of debt in collection nationwide rose a scant $16 between February and October 2020, inching up from $1,833 to $1,849 — though this amount varies by state.

In New Jersey, the median amount of debt in collections fell slightly from $1,379 to $1,372 between February and October 2020. The change ranks as the 18th largest improvement of the 20 states to report a decrease in median debt in collections agencies.

The typical amount of debt in collections is not the only financial indicator that improved in New Jersey in the early months of the pandemic. Likely due in large part to certain provisions of the CARES Act, the mortgage delinquency rate fell from 3.6% in February 2020 to 1.9% in October 2020. The act, which was passed in March 2020, stipulated that federally-backed lenders suspend mortgage collections from borrowers in single-family homes if they were faced with financial hardship resulting from the pandemic.

All data in this story is from Urban Institute’s “Credit Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic” report.

StateChange in median debt in collections ($)Median debt in collections, Feb. 2020 ($)Median debt in collections, Oct. 2020 ($)Oklahoma+1202,1222,242Alaska+1082,0732,181Nebraska+922,0032,095Nevada+832,1322,215Utah+751,8911,966Missouri+731,9482,021Mississippi+711,7741,845Washington+621,7941,856Texas+612,1022,163California+541,8421,896New Hampshire+541,6741,728Vermont+461,7021,748Maryland+411,5691,610Florida+392,1862,225Alabama+361,9171,953Georgia+351,9481,983Louisiana+351,8991,934Massachusetts+351,5491,584Wyoming+312,4782,509Iowa+301,6471,677Virginia+281,7761,804Minnesota+271,7001,727Illinois+251,5471,572Tennessee+121,9471,959South Dakota+112,2012,212Rhode Island+91,7941,803Kansas+51,7461,751Oregon+21,5401,542Arizona+12,0512,052Pennsylvania+11,8211,822Maine-31,6941,691New York-51,7551,750New Jersey-71,3791,372Arkansas-81,6711,663Indiana-161,8721,856Kentucky-271,3421,315Ohio-291,5291,500New Mexico-371,7611,724Montana-381,8371,799Delaware-441,8911,847Colorado-451,6821,637Idaho-452,3072,262Michigan-511,5531,502West Virginia-621,6431,581Hawaii-731,9991,926Connecticut-791,6251,546South Carolina-1002,1972,097North Carolina-1021,6701,568Wisconsin-1481,8541,706North Dakota-2442,1581,914

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New Jersey Assembly passes legislation to increase poll worker pay

(The Center Square) – The New Jersey Assembly has signed off on legislation to increase pay for poll workers.

A-1527/S-598 increases pay to $300 a day. Poll worker pay has been $200 per day since 2001 when it increased from $75.

Under the measure, which allocates $7 million to the New Jersey Department of State, the state and counties will split the reimbursement. The state covers $225, while counties are on the hook for the remaining $75, as they were under the previous $200 rate.

“Poll workers are important to the integrity of our elections. We need to attract good people with competitive wages,” Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, R-Bergen, said in a news release. “Addressing their pay through legislation, rather than executive order, ensures a permanent higher pay rate is in place for future elections and allows counties to recruit workers with the promise of better compensation.”

State lawmakers previously passed legislation to increase poll worker pay to $400 for the June primary. Gov. Phil Murphy also activated the National Guard to supplement election duties, and on Oct. 5, he issued Executive Order 266 to increase poll worker pay to $300 per day.

“These workers have been in short supply and we must offer increased pay to assist in filling those roles,” Assembly members Robert Karabinchak, D-Middlesex, and Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, said in a joint statement.

“We want to ensure that workers are receiving the proper pay for the rigorous work they do,” they added. “This measure will allow us to hire more poll workers and keep our elections more efficient with no added cost to our counties.”

The Assembly voted 77-0 to advance the legislation.