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New Jersey ranks in the middle of the transparency pack for reporting CARES Act spending

(The Center Square) – New Jersey ranks better than some states but worse than others when disclosing its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act spending.

According to a report from Washington-based Good Jobs First, New Jersey was one of 27 states that fell into the “States with Some Disclosure.” Only six states fell into the “Exemplary States” category, while 18 fell into the category of “States with Inadequate or No Disclosure.”

The report included the District of Columbia in its list.

The report found the state’s website – nj.gov/covid19oversight/index.shtml – was easily accessible and included agency and fund allocations. However, the report noted the state’s site does not include recipient information or spending descriptions.

According to the state site, New Jersey’s executive branch agencies have received more than $48.3 billion in federal funds under Section 15011 of the CARES Act.

The state Department of Labor received more than half of the funds, $26.1 billion, followed by the Department of the Treasury, which took in more than $9.3 billion. The state has allocated nearly $35.1 billion of the federal taxpayer dollars.

When it comes to American Rescue Plan (ARP) money, the state received more than $6.2 billion via the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and has spent about $67.8 million, roughly 1% of the money allocated. Republicans have blasted Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, for not proactively allocating federal COVID relief money.

“Unfortunately, months have been wasted, taxes have been raised on small businesses, and New Jersey now has the 3rd highest unemployment rate in the nation,” state Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, said in a statement last month.

“All of that could have and should have been prevented,” Oroho added. “The Murphy administration can’t undo the harm that’s already been done, but it can work to enact a comprehensive plan as we’ve proposed using the billions in relief funds that are still available.”

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Murphy marks the anniversary of New Jersey’s first COVID-19 vaccination

(The Center Square) – New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy marked the first anniversary of the state’s first COVID-19 vaccination.

On Wednesday, the governor traveled to University Hospital in Newark to commemorate the occasion. The hospital was the site of the first shot given in New Jersey.

“Today’s anniversary marks a significant milestone in the progress we have made against COVID-19,” Murphy said in a news release.

“Over the last year, we have learned that vaccines are the best tool we have in preventing hospitalizations and death, and millions of New Jerseyans have rolled up their sleeves to protect themselves, their families, and their communities,” the governor added. “However, with data showing waning immunity over time, we encourage all New Jerseyans ages 16 and older to receive a necessary booster dose to enhance their protection against COVID-19.”

Murphy and New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli declared Dec. 15 as Boost NJ Day. Vaccination sites increased walk-in availability and extended hours to expand access to booster doses.

“As we approach the anniversary of the first COVID-19 vaccination being administered in our state, we have made tremendous progress in vaccinating those who live, work, and study in the state with 73% of residents fully vaccinated and 84% with at least one dose of vaccine,” Persichilli said during a Monday press briefing.

“While we work to increase the vaccination rates in younger populations, we are also focused on getting more residents their booster vaccines,” Persichilli added. “Those ages 16 and older who have received their primary vaccination series are now eligible for boosters. Currently, 36% of all those eligible have received a booster.”

New Jersey has reported more than 1.1 million confirmed COVID cases and 177,614 probable cases. It has reported 25,808 confirmed deaths from COVID and an additional 2,835 probable cases.

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New Jersey hires correctional planning and design consultant to relocate Edna Mahan prison

(The Center Square) – The New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) has “enlisted” a planning and design consultant to help relocate Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

The Moss Group (TMG) subcontracted Steve Carter of CGL Services for $312,752, according to information provided to The Center Square by Liz Velez, director of communication for NJDOC.

“The work he’s doing is an extension of the DOC’s partnership with TMG, which he’s a part of, making him acutely aware of the needs of the residents at Edna Mahan,” Velez said in an email to The Center Square.

In June, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the state to close the Clinton facility following reports of inmate abuse, and then-NJDOC Commissioner Marcus Hicks resigned following the announcement. The governor’s announcement coincided with the release of an investigative report into alleged misconduct at the facility.

According to a news release, the work includes “a three-phase approach,” including examining current prison facilities to see if the state “can retrofit infrastructure to meet the aligned vision.” It could also “partner with the New Jersey Department of Treasury to identify alternative vacant facilities.”

In an announcement, Carter said his evaluation “will initially examine the ability to adapt, and potentially expand, selected prisons to accommodate these needs with an eye towards an ultimate purpose-built women’s correctional center.”

In April 2020, the United States Department of Justice said it believed the NJDOC “fails to keep prisoners at Edna Mahan safe from sexual abuse by staff.” The state has reached a $20.8 million taxpayer-funded settlement of lawsuits involving current and former inmates at Edna Mahan.

In August, the federal government and New Jersey reached a proposed agreement to resolve inmate abuse claims at Edna Mahan.

“This process represents a significant transformative step forward with a clean slate that allows us to take into account the evolving needs of this generation of incarcerated women,” NJDOC Acting Commissioner Victoria L. Kuhn said in an announcement about the hiring of Carter.

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New Jersey’s pension system hovering ‘like a dark cloud looming over our economy’

(The Center Square) – New Jersey has seen a “more precipitous financial decline” in its pension system since 2001 than other states’ plans.

That’s according to a new Garden State Initiative (GSI) report titled “The Looming Tipping Point of New Jersey’s Pension System: the impact of more retirees than employees.” The analysis explored the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), New Jersey Teachers pension plan (TPAF) and New Jersey Police and Fire (PFRS) pension plan.

“New Jersey remains an affluent state with high average incomes but even in that context, New Jersey’s pension funding requirement is concerning,” the report noted.

The report recommends the state begin “increased risk-sharing between the government and public employees.” New Jersey should also consider increasing contributions, lowering benefits or reducing additional compensation, such as health benefits.

“For years, our pension system has hovered like a dark cloud looming over our economy, escalating pressure for taxpayers, for financial analysts, and our public employees themselves, yet we continue to kick the can and make little to no progress implementing solutions,” GSI President Regina M. Egea said in a news release.

“…Deciding to acknowledge and address our pension crisis is not a conservative or liberal policy issue,” Egea added. “We must all work together to strengthen our local economy and ensure economic equity in the entire State – and we cannot achieve this goal when we ignore our single most pressing issue.”

The report found the state’s aging public workforce is accelerating pressure on the system, making it “less able to handle investment risk and other risks.” It also concluded that the state’s pension system is more generous than typical 401(k) plans and that New Jersey’s taxpayers have shouldered the bulk of the pension cost increases.

“We can first begin addressing New Jersey’s pension crisis by ensuring more people understand how it affects all of us,” Andrew G. Biggs, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and author of the report, said in a news release.

“Often, the discussion about the New Jersey pension debacle focuses on the mistakes New Jersey has made in the past, and not enough on how it is curtailing our everyday services with our schools, municipal services and law enforcement,” Biggs added. “This report provides both a clear historical perspective, why it matters to everyone who lives or works in New Jersey, as well as defines reasonable, common-sense solutions to improve all of our futures.”

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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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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.