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TRENTON – The Democrats’ internal battle over the state budget ended six weeks ago, or did it?
Sure, the Legislature passed a budget and the governor signed it, but not before Phil Murphy did some tinkering. The governor said he would withhold $235 million in spending until he was sure the state could pay for it. Clearly, he was miffed at Legislative Democrats ignoring his call to raise taxes on those earning more than a million dollars a year.
And lo and behold, a good portion of that $235 million was ticketed for South Jersey, the territory of Senate President Steve Sweeney and George Norcross, who fought – and beat – Murphy on budget priorities.
Sweeney is not taking the perceived slight lying down. He announced just a few days ago that he wants to hear from state Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio on when the funds will be released.
He reiterated that view Wednesday morning after an unrelated press event. Noting that a good chunk of the withheld money would have gone to South Jersey for cancer care, Sweeney observed that the whole thing just doesn’t smell right.
It seems unclear when and what Muoio will say about this, but Sweeney assumes – or perhaps hopes – she will do so willingly.
Asked if he would subpoena her, Sweeney said, why would it be necessary to subpoena the state treasurer? But then he answered his own question, saying that if Muoio doesn’t talk voluntarily, it would suggest the administration has something to hide.
This, of course, isn’t the only lingering dispute. The governor has not signed a bipartisan bill to extend the state’s tax incentive program, which ended June 30 with the close of the last fiscal year.
The governor named a task force to look into the program after an audit turned up possible malfeasance. Sweeney has appointed a committee of his own, but the two panels seem to be looking in opposite directions.
The governor’s panel is concentrating on grant money perhaps improperly going to businesses connected to Norcross. At a meeting last month, the Senate committee seemed more concerned about previously awarded grants not being doled out.
Sen. Bob Smith, who chairs the Senate committee and who was also at Wednesday’s event, said the governor should simply sign the extension and move on.
The official reason for the event was something that seems beyond partisan politics – water.
With old lead pipes causing water problems in Newark, Sweeney announced that the Senate will explore how the 2017 Water Quality Accountability Act is working. In short, the Senate will be holding the “accountability act” accountable.
The gist of the act requires water companies statewide to modernize their systems and to establish timetables for doing so. Sweeney said the press event was planned prior to water problems surfacing in Newark.
He admitted that updating water systems is harder than it seems. For one thing, modernizing a system can mean higher rates. Selling a municipal water system to a large private company is also an option, but as Sweeney noted, that can be a “hot potato,” politically speaking.
Smith sized up the apparent frustration of dealing with aging water systems, many of which have lead pipes.
“Lead used to be good,” he said.