Gov. Murphy details $235 million from budget he placed on hold

TRENTON — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration detailed for the first time Wednesday $235 million in funding for state programs that will be frozen until savings lawmakers anticipated in the budget materialize.

Murphy announced he would freeze the funds when he signed the fiscal 2020 budget on Sunday. That money is set to be held so the budget stays in balance and will be released after savings, which the administration is calling questionable, materializes.

The freeze affects some 64 programs and ranges from $50,000 for a traffic study in Little Ferry to more than $100 million in aid for struggling cities and towns. Some of the other large items include $20 million for a substance use disorder program at the Essex County jail and $15.4 million for a cancer program at Cooper University Hospital system in Camden.

On Sunday, Senate President Steve Sweeney expressed confidence that lawmakers’ budget will meet projections, but he had harsh words for Murphy’s move on Wednesday. He compared Murphy to Republican Chris Christie and invoked the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, in which two officials tied to Christie were convicted for their roles in a scheme to exact revenge on an official who did not support the governor’s reelection.

“The Governor’s action putting a so-called freeze on items cherry picked from the budget is a shameless act of political retribution that is both petty and vindictive – it’s Bridgegate on steroids that punishes those who disagree,” Sweeny said in a statement.

Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro said in a statement that the governor supports many of the programs that are being frozen, but that he had to make “difficult choices” to make sure the state didn’t spend money did does not have.

“The Legislature sent over a budget that included questionable savings to the tune of more than $200 million,” she said.

Murphy signed a $38.7 billion budget Sunday, while also using his line-item veto to slash $48.5 million in spending. The budget is roughly 3% higher than the previous year’s spending plan and includes more money for education, public pension payments and New Jersey Transit.

Murphy signed the budget despite lawmakers rejecting his request to raise taxes on people making $1 million and above, a key proposal and campaign promise by the first-term Democrat. Lawmakers said the state would have enough revenue without the higher taxes.

Murphy argued the money was needed to help stabilize the state’s finances ahead of potential economic downturns.

It’s not the first time a governor has held onto cash in the budget. In 2016, Christie held back $100 million and also said he would withdraw New Jersey from a reciprocal tax deal with Pennsylvania if lawmakers didn’t specify $250 million in health benefits savings that their budget included but didn’t actually cut.

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