New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s “Sandy Bill of Rights” legislation was conditionally vetoed Monday by Gov. Chris Christie, setting off criticism from advocates who say the governor has a “blind spot” when it comes to Sandy victims. The bill would simplify the application process for Sandy recovery programs, require “plain language” explanations to storm survivors of their status, and give people greater rights to appeal if they’re denied funding.
Christie’s office sent out a news release stating that Christie had made “changes that improve upon the original legislation” and “ensure the continued distribution of federal recovery and rebuilding aid in a manner that is legally consistent with federal laws and requirements.” Among the modifications, Christie got rids of parts of the bill that would have made it easier for Sandy aid applicants to find out how long they’d have to wait and the specific reasons if they were denied funding.
Critics said the changes essentially gut the original proposal and “lack commonsense.”
"This veto may be one of the biggest blunders yet,” said Sweeney in a written statement. The bill, which was passed with bipartisan support, will die if Christie’s changes aren’t adopted. Sweeney is calling for the Legislature to override the governor’s veto, although the Democrats do not have a veto-proof majority and Republicans have yet to join with Democrats against Christie.
Meanwhile, criticism of the administration’s oversight of the Sandy recovery continued to mount, with lawmakers grilling a Treasury Department official yesterday morning on why the first audit reports on Sandy recovery contracts have yet to be released, 14 months after an integrity monitor law went into effect.
To its proponents, the Sandy Bill of Rights would have introduced more transparency and fairness into the aid distribution process and helped correct some of the problems Sandy survivors have complained about in the past, including difficulties navigating the multiple recovery programs, problems receiving accurate and up-to-date information, and disparities among minority applicants.
But to the governor, the Sandy Bill of Rights was a partisan-fueled series of mandates with “unquantifiable administrative costs, that would prove impossible to implement, frustrate sound future disaster planning, and all but certainly exceed federal funding for program administration.” He returned the bill to lawmakers yesterday with nine pages of amendments, even going so far as to eliminate the name “Sandy Bill of Rights.”
Other modifications included lengthening the period for appeals to be resolved from 50 to 120 days, nixing the creation of a system for grant applicants to track their status via the state’s website, and eliminating a requirement for the Department of Community Affairs commissioner to prepare a report within 30 days, documenting the breakdown of all aid applicants by race and ethnicity.
Sandy survivor advocacy groups weren’t having any of it. “This bill was passed with strong, bipartisan support and directly responds to concerns voiced by survivors who have been unable to get the help they need,” said Staci Berger from the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “This veto adds to the delay of an already drawn-out and uncertain process.”
Kevin Walsh with Fair Share Housing echoed that it “leaves people impacted by Sandy still waiting for funds 18 months after the storm with little recourse.”
For his part, Sweeney said that the victims of Sandy “should be frustrated with the governor’s action today,” but he added that he would do whatever he can to get them the answers and assistance they need. “If that means an override of this veto, then we will do it,” he said.
While Christie and his counsel were busy drafting their amendments, just down the street in the State House Annex, a member of his Treasury Department was getting an earful from lawmakers on the Assembly State and Local Government Committee. At issue were the lengthy delays in implementing the Sandy Integrity oversight monitors, who are required to release quarterly reports for all Sandy-related projects over $5 million. The law went into effect in March of last year, but Associate Deputy State Treasurer David Ridolfino said the first reports aren’t expected until July, which as one assemblyman noted will be after this legislative session concludes.
Ridolfino blamed the delays on the complicated procurement process involved in identifying a pool of qualified auditors, and he said it took the administration several months to figure out which projects fell under the reporting requirements of the law.
That didn’t satisfy Committee Chairwoman Linda Stender (D-Scotch Plains), who said she had difficulty wrapping her arms around the notion that no oversight reports had been issued during the first 18 months of the Sandy recovery.
“Quite frankly, I think we have a public who doesn’t have a lot of confidence in what government does and how they do it, and the more transparency that we can provide, I think the more confidence we can have. It would be good for all of us,” she said.
Ridolfino countered that numerous internal checks and balances were in place and that integrity monitors are simply an additional layer of protection beyond others that already exist.
In fact, a recent federal report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that the NJ Department of Community Affairs has been conducting internal audits since last June, but none of those have been made public, since the administration didn’t consider them “integrity monitor reports,” even though that’s the terminology HUD used in its report.
While New Jersey may not be under any legal obligation to release those reports, federal officials did say they “prefer” that the state publish these audits on its Sandy recovery website. “While HUD recognizes that some information in the reports may qualify for exceptions to state requirements for release of records,” the report said, “HUD believes that proactive transparency and openness regarding the state’s ongoing process of seeking out and correcting program management issues will be beneficial.”