The state of New Jersey used more than half a million dollars in federal Covid relief funds to purchase eight new SUVs to transport the governor, lieutenant governor and other top administration officials.
The $521,783 expenditure by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration — in this case the New Jersey State Police, which is responsible for transportation and security of high-ranking state officials — was one of 46 outlined in a state Treasury department memo to the Joint Budget Oversight Committee (JBOC) about the use of $200 million in federal rescue funds included in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget passed in June 2021.
The budget language at the time did not specify the expenditures. The administration was permitted to make unilateral spending decisions regarding the American Rescue Plan funds for appropriations of less than $10 million, for up to $200 million total. Anything more than that required the approval of JBOC, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly that’s controlled by Democrats.
The budget, however, did require the administration to detail the spending to JBOC.
“NJSP is responsible for the security and transportation of State officials, including the Governor and Lieutenant Governor,” the Department of the Treasury memo states. “As part of their many responsibilities, these officials provide leadership and lend support to the State’s COVID-19 recovery efforts at vaccination sites, hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and other affected sites.”
The purchases were also mentioned briefly in the Murphy administration’s New Jersey Recovery Plan report last summer, though they didn’t attract any scrutiny at the time.
The eight Chevrolet Suburbans are for use by the Executive Protection Unit, according to Trooper Charles Marchan, a spokesperson for the State Police.
“American Rescue Plan Funding was used to purchase eight Chevrolet Suburbans that went to the State Police’s Executive Protection Unit to support the travel requirements of government officials, including COVID-19-related engagements such as vaccine site visits, hospital tours, and pandemic meetings,” Marchan said in a statement.
The Treasury department memo says the state is eligible to use the funds under a federal regulation that allows them for “costs to improve the design and execution of programs responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and to administer or improve the efficacy of programs addressing the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts.”
Assemblymember Hal Wirths (R-Sussex), a member of JBOC and the Assembly minority budget officer, said the expenditure’s connection to the pandemic is “a stretch.”
“It’s legal, but I think it’s not the intention of the federal law to buy vehicles. Especially now. That’s what we’ve been so frustrated with, as budget officer, is the slowness of getting this money out,” Wirths said, referring to Republican complaints that the state government, controlled by Democrats, has been slow to appropriate federal coronavirus relief funds.
“I don’t think it’s a priority, especially this late after Covid,” Wirths said. “If they did it two or three years ago you might have a little more of an argument.”