Murphy: Treasurer can decide whether to testify on spending freeze

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday that it was up to the state treasurer whether to answer a call by Senate President Steve Sweeney to appear before a legislative committee to explain why the administration froze $235 million in the state budget.

Murphy was in Edison touring Middlesex County College to call attention to the free community college initiative he launched last year. While there, he was asked about Sweeney’s demand for answers from Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio, and about his claim that failing to fund those line items would disproportionately impact the southern part of the state.

“I don’t think there’s been a formal invitation to her yet,” Murphy said. “That’s obviously a decision that she will make.”

Murphy — who has sparred frequently with the Senate president, a fellow Democrat — impounded the $235 million as this year’s state budget was being finalized, saying the Legislature’s revenue projections were faulty, especially in the wake of its failure to enact the true millionaire’s tax he wanted. The money will be released, he said, if sufficient revenue turns up as the year goes on.

“Any of the amount of money that’s on that list, any of those programs, we support,” he said. “On the so-called list of frozen items, it includes some things that we put into our budget originally. I just could not verify, certify $235 million of savings in the budget that we got back.”

Murphy says the items frozen were determined based on objective factors like timing and the number of people touched.

Sweeney contends the fiscal move disproportionately hits South Jersey and its institutions, like Cooper University Hospital, where Murphy rival George Norcross is board chairman.

Murphy dismissed the assertion.

“If you look at it, notwithstanding some of the noise, there’s no geographic bias, there’s no institutional bias,” he said. “If you look at the items on the list — again, a list we support — I don’t think that the data, the actual facts, support that.”

The list of frozen items includes:

• $105 million for distressed cities statewide;
• $20 million for the Essex County Jail substance abuse program;
• $15 million for a Cooper Hospital cancer treatment program;
• $12 million for Cooper Medical School of Rowan University;
• $7.5 million for Montclair State University;
• $4.6 million for Stockton University.

Sweeney and the treasurer have traded six letters about the issue.

“It’s out of great frustration that I have to ask the Treasurer to come answer questions,” Sweeney said Wednesday. “We’re not going to be ignored as a Legislature.”

Murphy pushed back on the idea that his administration was being uncooperative.

“I’m not aware of any question that we’ve gotten that we’ve ignored,” he said. “We’ve been cooperative, we’ve been very transparent about this and will continue to be.”

“I’m confident in the numbers and so I think ultimately the result will be that all of the items will be unfrozen. But I think a cooperative dialogue is always very positive, so I don’t see a downside to it,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

Coughlin joined Murphy in Edison on a tour of Middlesex County College to call attention to the free community college initiative the governor launched last year.

“This is income-based,” Murphy said. “So last year it was $45,000 adjusted gross income and lower, so we’re going to the neediest of our folks who want to attend institutions like this. We’re now raising the ceiling to $65,000 adjusted gross income, so we want to chop through this year by year until we ultimately get to everybody.”

To qualify for a Community College Opportunity Grant, a student has to exhaust all other loan possibilities. That’s why part of the message Thursday was that the deadline for filing a FAFSA — the application for federal student aid — is just 30 days away.