When he signed the budget June 30, Gov. Phil Murphy froze $235 million worth of spending. Senate President Steve Sweeney said at the time, of the 48 line items frozen a disproportionate number fell on South Jersey. The Democratic governor and the South Jersey Democrats are deeply split.
Now we learn that three times in the past six weeks, Sweeney and Murphy’s state treasurer, Elizabeth Muoio, have exchanged letters on the topic, mainly whistling past each other.
In his last letter on July 29, Sweeney threatens to call Muoio to testify under oath about the frozen funds before the Senate Budget Committee.
“If I can’t get an answer from the administration, and I can’t get an answer from the treasurer, an honest answer, a complete answer, then I’m left no choice. I sent three letters. I get back three letters back saying nothing,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney says the list of items frozen constituted political retribution against the south and its ally Essex County. Among the items frozen:
- $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.
“He froze cancer funding for people in southern New Jersey, only southern New Jersey. I lost a brother and a mother to cancer. It’s a little personal,” Sweeney said.
Muoio is on vacation out of state. Her spokesperson said, “The items placed in reserve do not disproportionately affect any one geographic area. They are spread out all over the state, in many districts, and were determined based on the criteria laid out in the Governor’s Executive Order. Our priority right now is to closely and continuously monitor our financial position with the goal of releasing funds as soon as it is fiscally prudent to do so.”
The governor also denied any political motive when he announced the freeze.
“I promise you we are calling balls and strikes. We don’t care about geography, individuals or companies,” Murphy said at a press conference in June.
Sweeney argues freezing funds was unnecessary to begin with. The revenues will be there when needed, he says.
The treasurer says the administration is just being prudent and protecting its surplus.
Sweeney is getting frustrated at what he sees as the lack of answers to his questions.
“I’m trying to get along. I told the governor before, let’s hit a restart. This isn’t how you have a restart, that you ignore, I’m not saying the governor is doing this. The letters were directed to the treasurer,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney wants Muoio to testify before the Senate Budget Committee next week. He says if she has nothing to hide, she has no reason not to appear.