U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-North Bergen) wants New Jersey to use the $10.2 billion in direct federal aid to state, county and local governments to begin to reopen schools that have remained closed to in-person instruction in various degrees for much of the last year.
“I think the stress on our kids and their families is enormous, so that’s a priority for me, getting them open safely, and I think we can do that with the resources here,” the senator said following a press conference on the $1.9 trillion relief bill Friday.
The bulk of the money allocated to New Jersey, a little more than $6.4 billion, is going directly to a state government that last year called for massive trancehs of federal aid amid a virus-fueled fiscal tumble.
It’s not clear how the aid will impact Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget or negotiations over the next fiscal year’s spending bill that are just now beginning in earnest. Massive revenue shortfalls forecasted by the state treasury never quite materialized, despite the pandemic’s lasting impact on unemployment.
The governor expects schools to be back to full in-person instruction by September. If that goal is met, it’ll be a boon for Democratic state lawmakers, who view virtual instruction as a major vulnerability in this year’s elections but believe, as Murphy does, that the issue will be moot by summer’s end.
New Jersey’s senior senator also sees continued aid to first responders and health care workers as a top priority.
“You know,” he said, “the people we need most during the pandemic. And as the governor said — and everybody knows it — we’re not over yet, to keep them on the job so we can achieve the goal of finally breaking the back of the pandemic and getting over it.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-Newark), who also appeared at Friday’s presser, gave no priorities of his own, saying only that he trusted Murphy to use the money properly, saying the governor acted like New Jersey’s third senator during the negotiation process.
“I’m not joking: He talked to our caucus more than once. He talked to Chuck Schumer more than he talked to his wife,” Booker said. “He was fully present in this fight, letting people know what is needed, what was on the line. He is responsible for this success.”
Murphy, who has long called for additional federal aid and issued measured scorn against past aid packages, calling them insufficient, had no such criticisms for the newly passed relief bill.
It was “a huge deal,” he said, “period.”
But the governor also set a lofty goal for himself and a state that struggled to lift up its economy in the wake of the great recession.
“I commit to you today that New Jersey will be the number one state to recover from this pandemic,” he said.
The newest tranche of federal aid also includes substantial funds for county and local governments around the state. Each of the state’s 21 counties and many of its municipalities will receive substantial aid. For the counties, that’s at least $18.2 million for Sussex County and towns there, which has a population about the size of Old Bridge, which is receiving $6.7 million in aid.
But more populous urban counties will see far larger awards. Hudson County’s government will get $424.6 million, with another $294 million headed to local governments. Essex County’s $463.8 million award was even larger.