A just released COVID fund allocations notice by the state treasury revealed the Murphy Administration used more than half a million dollars in federal relief funds initially intended for the pandemic for state vehicles that has drawn the wrath of GOP lawmakers in Trenton.
The report showed administration used the COVID funds to purchase eight new fully equipped Chevrolet SUVs for the governor, the lieutenant governor and other top state officials within his administration—notable as well for a defense in the document that was not included with other expenditures.
The disclosure is part of the required public accounting outlining how the Murphy Administration spent the $6.4 billion dollars allocated to the Garden State under the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act funds in Fiscal Year 2022.
COVID Funds Used to Buy SUVs
The price-tag for the fleet of new SUV’s came to $521,783, which the the New Jersey State Police claims was a COVID-related expense, needed for security purposes in transporting himself and other top state officials around the Garden State.
Anticipating pushback on the purchase, the a spokesperson from the New Jersey State Police provided a pre-written explanation that read in part that “as part of their many responsibilities, these officials provide leadership and lend support to the State’s COVID-19 recovery efforts at vaccination sites, hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and other affected sites.”
JBOC Approves Purchase
According to federal guidelines, the COVID relief package signed into law in March of 2021, during the height of the pandemic allocated nearly $200 billion to the states with only a few strings attached. Each state has the flexibility to spend the funds as they like, provided its COVID related.
The Joint Budget Oversight Committee (JBOC) is a bipartisan group of state lawmakers from both the Senate and Assembly, tasked with overseeing any purchases of over $200 million and approved the purchase of the SUV’s.
However, according to Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-24), a member of JBOC and the Assembly minority budget officer, the purchase of eight SUVs is “a stretch.”
Testa Blasts Dems
“It’s legal, but I think it’s not the intention of the federal law to buy vehicles especially now. That’s what we’ve been so frustrated with, as budget officer, is the slowness of getting this money out,” Wirths said, referring to Republican complaints that the state government, controlled by Democrats, has been slow to appropriate federal coronavirus relief funds.
“I don’t think it’s a priority, especially this late after COVID,” Wirths said. “If they did it two or three years ago you might have a little more of an argument.”
State Sen. Michael Testa (R-1) added that ““It’s disturbing that Governor Murphy and Democrat leaders chose to spend pandemic relief funds to buy new SUVs for the State Police to chauffeur them around the state,” said Testa. “Instead of putting the billions in unspent relief funds that have sat idle in state accounts for two years to effective use, Democrats prioritized their own comfort and convenience over helping people.”
Looking At Spending
The 45 listed items outlined Jan. 25 include funds for municipal hospitals, first responders, nursing homes, local and state health departments, directly related to COVID. Among the most expensive were:
- $10 million to the Department of Labor providing subsidized employment and job training designed to help New Jerseyans return to work and to assist small employers to fill positions;
- $10 million to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to create the Sustain & Serve New Jersey Program to continue its COVID-related aid to the nonprofit organizations;
- $10 million earmarked to create the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund to assist low-income NJ households who are excluded from other COVID relief programs; and
- $10 million to provide grants to support local and regional fire departments by ensuring that firefighters have proper fire protection, cleaning, and sanitization equipment.
Funds that went to specific North Jersey entities included
- $6 million to Atlantic Health Hackettstown and Newton hospitals for capital improvements to address the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases in congregate settings and for the expansion of mental health services;
- $5.25 million to St. Joseph’s Hospital to expand and enhance its psychiatric emergency services and maternity units to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases; and
- Each North Jersey county received grants for health infrastructure to support local health departments as they address the public health impacts of COVID-19. Broken down by county, $4.2 million was received by Bergen County, $3.8 million by Essex County, $3.1 million by Hudson County, $2.3 million by Morris and Passaic counties; $648,000 by Sussex County and $493,000 by Warren County.
Besides the SUV, spending for programs that appear to be unrelated to COVID included:
- $10 million to invest in technology and software system integration to enable automatic license plate recognition;
- $7 million to acquire and enhance gunshot detection technology and related infrastructure improvements; and
- $9.2 million to ensure appropriate staffing at voting locations throughout the state, that was facilitated by increasing the daily rate for poll workers from $200 to $300 for the 2021 General Election.