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New Jersey allocates $37 million for library projects

(The Center Square) – New Jersey is allocating nearly $37.2 million in funding for 36 library projects in 13 counties across the state.

The money is from the Library Construction Bond Act (LCBA), which New Jersey voters approved in 2017. The LCBA authorized $125 million in state bonds for library projects, including technology updates and building improvements.

“New Jersey’s public libraries are constantly evolving to serve a wider range of community needs,” Merodie Hancock, president of the Thomas Edison State University, said in a statement. “From jobs and workforce development to digital literacy and community building, they assure that all New Jerseyans have access to key tools of the 21st century.”

State lawmakers must approve the list, and in a news release, Gov. Phil Murphy indicated he will sign off on it once they do. Under the first round of funding, announced in January 2020, the state allocated $87.5 million.

“The new and refurbished buildings that are being supported through the Bond Act will benefit New Jerseyans for years to come with safe, healthy spaces and up-to-date technology that are available to all,” New Jersey State Librarian Jennifer Nelson said in an announcement. “When we improve our libraries, we improve our communities and the lives of residents.”

The LCBA funding covers half of a library project’s costs, and local governments are responsible for contributing the remaining money.

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New Jersey tops moving company’s list for outbound migration

(The Center Square) – People are ditching New Jersey for other locations, as the Garden State topped a list of states where residents are leaving.

The findings were part of United Van Lines’ 45th Annual National Movers Study, which found of all moves to or from New Jersey, 70.5% were outbound.

Reasons for leaving New Jersey included retirement (32.6%), family (27.4%), lifestyle (25.5%), job (19.8%) and cost (16.4%).

“This new data from United Van Lines is indicative of COVID-19’s impact on domestic migration patterns, with 2021 bringing an acceleration of moves to smaller, midsized towns and cities,” Michael A. Stoll, economist and professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a news release. “We’re seeing this not only occur because of Americans’ desire to leave high density areas due to risk of infection, but also due to the transformation of how we’re able to work, with more flexibility to work remote.”

New Jersey edged out Illinois, New York, Connecticut and California to top the list of outbound states. Nationally, Vermont, South Dakota, South Carolina, West Virginia and Florida topped the states for inbound residents.

“As the pandemic continues to impact our day-to-day, we’re seeing that lifestyle changes – including the increased ability to work from home – and wanting to be closer to family are key factors in why Americans are moving today,” Eily Cummings, United Van Lines’ director of corporate communications, said in a news release.

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Republican state senators file open records requests for documents related to $53 million settlement

(The Center Square) – Republican senators want Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to turn over records related to a $53 million settlement with the families of 119 veterans who died at state-run homes during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sens. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, and Joe Pennacchio, R- Montville, filed requests for records under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) with the Governor’s Office, Department of Health, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and Department of Law & Public Safety.

“We’ve filed a request for public records related to the $53 million that apparently will be paid by New Jersey taxpayers to settle claims of negligence and incompetence made against the Murphy administration for deaths in State-run veterans homes,” Oroho, the incoming Republican leader, said in a statement.

“The documents we are seeking will help us to understand what went wrong at the start of the coronavirus pandemic so we can develop effective policies that better protect our seniors and veterans,” Oroho added. “This isn’t about playing ‘gotcha’ with the administration, we’re trying to save lives.”

Alyana Alfaro Post, press secretary for Murphy, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Thus far, Murphy’s representatives have either declined to comment to The Center Square about the settlement or ignored requests for comment.

Democrats in the state legislature similarly dodged The Center Square’s requests for comment. Republicans, however, have pounced, with the entire Republican Senate caucus calling for an investigation into the state’s COVID-19 response and the $53 million settlement.

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-19 outbreak, apparently focusing 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.

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

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Murphy vows to follow through with plans on New Jersey public bank

(The Center Square) – New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he intends to follow through with plans to open a state-owned bank.

In November 2019, Murphy signed Executive Order No. 91 to create the Public Bank Implementation Board. The board was given a year to develop an implementation plan for a public bank.

At the time, state officials said a public bank could generate revenue, spur job and economic growth and help local governments reduce their debt costs. It would also provide additional banking opportunities for “under-served communities.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed plans for a public bank, during a virtual press briefing Monday, Murphy predicted a version of it would happen during his second term.

“The state bank, I think some version of that is going to come to pass,” Murphy said during the briefing. “We had a good meeting on that just before the Christmas holiday. There is an outline of a way forward, and I think you’re going to see real progress on that front.

“That’s been one of the harder ones for us to get done for a lot of legitimate reasons,” the governor added. “It looked like it was easier from the outside to get into the office, and you realize some of this stuff isn’t as easy as you had hoped. That’s on that list, and I do think the pandemic and the challenges that individuals, families, businesses, municipalities, particularly students with college loans – I think it has sharpened the need for this as opposed to lessened the needs for it.”

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New Jersey governor: Remote learning is ‘suboptimal,’ students will remain masked and in person

(The Center Square) – New Jersey students largely will continue to go to school in person, but they will wear masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Phil Murphy said.

During a virtual press briefing, Murphy said the state has “no desire to return to remote learning, which is suboptimal as we all know in terms of learning, instruction, and learning loss.” While the state has no plans to shutter schools, some New Jersey schools planned to start the new year with virtual classes.

State officials held their briefing virtually after First Lady Tammy Murphy tested positive for COVID-19. During the briefing, the governor said he tested negative.

“This Omicron tsunami has changed the game yet again. We cannot summarily give up the fight,” Murphy said during the briefing. “We need to remain on a war footing to ensure that we can get resources to where they need to be and when they need to be there, and yes, this means that we anticipate our kids having to wear masks in their schools for now in order to protect their health and safety and ensure that they can continue in-person learning.

“This brings us absolutely no joy,” Murphy added. “No one wants to see our kids’ smiles more than I do, but this is what is necessary now to keep our schools safe. …With the exponential surge in our numbers, it would be the height of irresponsibility to lift these basic public health requirements at this time, … and we will not let that happen.”

According to the governor, state hospitals reported 4,715 hospitalizations because of COVID-19 on Sunday night; the peak in April 2020 was 8,270. Additionally, state hospitals had 644 patients in the ICU; the peak in April 2020 was 2,080.

Meanwhile, the state has launched its Test to Stay program for unvaccinated students to continue to attend in-person classes.

“Test to Stay allows asymptomatic, unvaccinated students who were exposed to a person with COVID-19 in any school setting where students are supervised by school staff indoors, outdoors, or on school buses to continue in-person academic activities that are part of the regular school curriculum and provided during school hours,” New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said during the briefing.

“Students participating in Test to Stay are required to comply with enhanced testing and masking recommendations and should quarantine when not in school,” Persichilli added. “If schools are considering implementing Test to Stay policies, they should have robust contact tracing in place and access to testing resources.”

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New Jersey increases minimum wage to $13 per hour

(The Center Square) – New Jersey’s minimum wage increased to $13 per hour for most employees starting Jan. 1.

The $1 per hour increase is part of legislation Gov. Phil Murphy signed in February 2019. It raises the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024 for most employees.

“This increase will greatly improve the lives of countless New Jerseyans and ensure that hardworking people across our state are paid a living wage,” Murphy said in an announcement.

Under the law, seasonal and small employers have until 2026 to reach the $15 per hour threshold. The minimum wage for these employees increased to $11.90 per hour on Jan. 1, up from $11.10.

Additionally, agricultural workers have until 2027 to reach the $15 per hour minimum wage.

The minimum wage for tipped workers increased by $1 to $5.13 per hour. If the combined wage and tips do not equal or exceed the minimum wage, employers must pay employees the difference.

“The challenges of the pandemic have shown why it’s so important that the Garden State remain on course to a $15 minimum wage,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said in an announcement.

Once the minimum wage hits $15 per hour, it will increase annually based on the Consumer Price Index.

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Murphy declares state of emergency for five New Jersey counties

(The Center Square) – Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency for five New Jersey counties as winter weather was expected across the region, including the potential for several inches of snow in parts of the state.

The governor issued Executive Order No. 278, declaring an emergency starting at 9 p.m. Sunday. It applies to Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties and remains in place until the governor cancels it.

“The anticipated winter storm is expected to bring heavy snow, wind gusts, and coastal flooding in parts of Southern New Jersey,” Murphy said in an announcement. “Residents should stay off the roads, remain vigilant, and follow all safety protocols.”

State officials urged New Jerseyans to pay attention to weather forecasts, watches and warnings. The New Jersey Department of Transportation similarly urged motorists to avoid traveling if possible.

“Due to the predicted weather forecast, we’re asking motorists to avoid unnecessary travel [on Monday] so that our crews can clear the roads safely,” the agency said in a tweet. “If you have to travel, watch out for changing road conditions, plan extra travel time & please give our crews plenty of room to work.”

By Monday morning, the agency reported that rain was turning into snow in the southern part of the state, creating potential “hazardous driving conditions.”

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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.”