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Gov. Phil Murphy. Photo by Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe.

Murphy undecided on VBM funding freeze

Governor ‘optimistic we’ll find a good way forward’

By Nikita Biryukov, September 09 2019 12:56 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy isn’t sure when — or if — the state will unfreeze funding to reimburse counties for the state’s expanded vote-by-mail system.

“There’s a process related to that. The treasurer is looking at that right now,” Murphy said during a press gaggle following an unrelated event Monday. “I’m optimistic we’ll find a good way forward.”

When he signed the budget in June, Murphy froze $235 million in spending for a number of line items, including the state’s expanded vote-by-mail program, which would see voters that requested mail-in ballots in previous elections receive such ballots in perpetuity.

Last week, State Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio’s office said it had not decided whether the state would release funding for VBM ballots.

The Office of Legislative Services could not peg an exact dollar amount to the cost of the state’s VBM reform, but said it did not expect the program’s associated costs to exceed the $2 million included in the legislation.

County Clerks are set to mail VBM ballots on September 21.

The state Council on Local Mandates has scheduled a hearing on Sept. 23 to determine if the mail-in ballot law creates an illegal unfunded mandate for county governments.

The New Jersey Association of Counties, where Essex County Freeholder and close Murphy ally Brendan Gill is president, filed a complaint alleging the perpetual VBM program violates a constitutional ban on unfunded mandates.

“It’s important to note that it’s a reimbursement expenditure the counties,” Murphy said. “The counties actually spend the money first, and the state, ultimately — I think, we need to, by the first of the year, reimburse the counties.”

Lawmakers returned to Trenton for a rare late-August session last month to push through VBM reform bills after Murphy’s administration issued a ruling that said the perpetual mail-in ballot program lawmakers passed last year only applied to voters who requested such ballots in or before 2016.

Murphy and his administration have said three criteria — the number of people affected, the recency of a given program and the timing of the spending during the fiscal year — determined which spending items were put into limbo.

“The fact that this is a reimbursement, the fact that it touches everybody, I’ll let the treasurer speak for herself, but she’s trying to figure that out as we speak,” Murphy said. “I’m optimistic that the process will yield a good result.”

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