CAMDEN, NJ — Local officials this week criticized Gov. Phil Murphy for putting a freeze on millions of dollars in budgetary items that impact South Jersey, including $27.4 million dedicated to Cooper University Health cancer prevention and medical education.
The funds, many of which link to Camden, are among some $235 million that Murphy placed on hold until the Treasury Department determines the state has enough money to cover the projects.
Murphy, who signed the $38.7 billion state budget on Sunday, said the funds will clear when savings anticipated "materialize, current revenues reliably overperform, or the Legislature authorizes new revenues."
But members of Cooper Health administration questioned why more than $30 million for cancer programs in North Jersey had been left untouched, while the Camden-based hospital loses $15.4 million for patient treatment. Another $12 million in funding sits dormant for Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.
Cooper Health officials noted that Murphy did not freeze a $15 million unrestricted grant for East Orange General Hospital.
"Gov. Murphy’s actions today are more inexplicable given just over 100 days ago, his proposed budget included this exact same cancer funding for Cooper. What has changed?" asked Thomas Rubino, senior vice president of communications and marketing at Cooper.
Other spending holds related to Camden affect the Battleship New Jersey museum ($1 million), Rutgers University-Camden Mental Health and Well Being program ($170,000), and the Rowan/Rutgers Joint Board Rutgers-Camden Business School ($3 million).
Alyana Alfaro, press secretary for Murphy, commented earlier this week that the governor needed to be sure the budget was fiscally responsible.
“The Legislature sent over a budget that included questionable savings to the tune of more than $200 million. The governor has made it abundantly clear that he supports many of these programs. However, it was incumbent on him to make difficult choices to ensure we do not spend money we simply do not have,” Alfaro said.
In a statement Friday, Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said the decisions show that the Murphy administration's "priorities are aimed at political retribution and showmanship, not at finding ways to improve the lives of South Jersey residents."
"When the governor stops holding South Jersey hostage in his political disputes, maybe then we can progress to a fairer, stronger New Jersey," Cappelli said.
Two days earlier, State Senate President Steve Sweeney said the budget decision was "Bridgegate on steroids," a reference to the scandal under former Gov. Chris Christie.
The local critics of Murphy's actions point to the focus of some line-item vetos he previously made in finalizing the budget.
Days before announcing the funding hold, Murphy had already cut a $5 million grant to Cooper Health supporting an access to care program for vulnerable communities.
He also slashed to $500,000 meant for a Rutgers-Camden workforce study in collaboration with Cooper's Ferry, the Camden redevelopment group, and reduced state benefits funding at Rowan University, which has academic and medical campuses in the city, to only 1,650 of a total 1,799 positions.
These items — from a total $48.5 million in spending added by the Legislature that Murphy slashed — are linked to South Jersey's political machine and unelected leader George E. Norcross, who serves as board chairman for Cooper Health.
Democrats allied with Norcross have sparred with Murphy for months over a task force he appointed to investigate now-expired state tax incentive programs.
A report from WNYC/Pro Publica in May revealed that $1.1 billion of a total $1.6 billion in credits doled out by the state Economic Development Authority to businesses relocating to Camden went to those affiliated with Norcross or his brother Philip, attorney and managing shareholder at Parker McCay.
The task force's first report released last month zeroed in on the firms tied to Norcross — including Cooper Health — with details on alleged actions that misled state officials for more lucrative incentive packages.
During a news conference Sunday, Murphy said that the administration is calling "balls and strikes" on any funding decisions and "does not care about geography, individuals, or companies."
He said that the assessments by officials from the Department of the Treasury and Office of Management and Budget adhered to a formula.
"Was there a program behind the money? Was it improperly calculated? Is it a program that we're already accounting for in a different line item or different statutory category?" Murphy said.
Marc H. Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers, in an interview, said that "generally speaking" the vetos and holds made in the forthcoming budget were not unusual.
"Legislatures always propose additional spending items on top of what a governor does. And the governor kept many of the items the Legislature put in, except he reserved the right not to spend it contingent on revenues coming in as planned," Pfeiffer said.
He added that the legislative process "worked as it was supposed to," despite hints at a shutdown.
"This actually became a pretty normal year," Pfeiffer said. "It wasn't fully normal that you had a negotiation between the governor and the Legislature, but other than that, these were pretty normal things that happened."