S. Jersey projects face long odds in budget

N.J. budget is closed to a $50 million wish list.

Posted: June 12, 2007

TRENTON - Three South Jersey lawmakers are trying to defy the odds, lobbying to get more than $50 million into the state budget to fund local projects.

The wish list put together by State Sen. Stephen Sweeney and Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Douglas Fisher - all Democrats from Gloucester County - includes $900,000 to resurface a street in Swedesboro, $10 million for a new municipal building in Woolwich, and $8 million to help build a bridge across Alloways Creek.

Those are just the types of projects that majority-party legislators, in years past, would have funded by slipping money into the budget at the last minute, often behind closed doors, in the form of so-called "Christmas tree grants."

But this year, with U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie investigating whether any legislators personally benefited from the secretive grants, everything has changed.

This year, legislators had to submit their requests for funding in writing and do it early - well in advance of the July 1 constitutional deadline to have a new budget in place. And in the end, requests like the ones made by the three Third District legislators likely won't even be considered.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) said that when legislative leaders release their proposed changes to Gov. Corzine's $33 billion budget plan, which they could do as early as today, the package will contain less than $20 million worth of special legislative grants, compared with hundreds of millions of dollars in past years.

And most of the money, leaders say, will go to statewide or regional causes - not local projects - in an effort to disburse what limited funds there are more fairly.

The idea is to remove the stigma from spending that advocates say funds worthwhile projects, but critics - especially members of the minority party, who have little access to the money - call "pork."

Sweeney said the projects he was pushing in his district were all worthy. At the same time, he acknowledged that few, if any, would get state funding this year.

But, he said, "if you don't ask, you have no chance."

Other legislators have taken a different view.

Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, a fellow Democrat who represents the neighboring Fourth District, said he did not make any local funding requests because it would have been "an exercise in futility."

"What am I going to get?" he asked.

Like Sweeney, he said he believed the local projects that got funding in the past were "all good civic ventures, by and large."

"But after a while, all those nice civic ventures become a drain on the budget so maybe this is not necessarily a bad idea," he said.

State Sen. Fred Madden, who also represents the Fourth District, said he was asking for just two additions: $100,000 to help transport veterans in Camden and Gloucester Counties to hospitals and $20,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

"I have other requests from my municipalities, but I believe those areas are funded in other areas of the budget," Madden said, adding he would help his towns apply for state grant programs.

Other legislators say they have requested no extra funding. Many, like Sen. Diane Allen of Burlington County's Seventh District, are Republicans who recognize their chances of getting money into the budget as members of the minority party are slim.

Beyond that, GOP leaders have asked their colleagues to refrain from asking for additional spending, which would fly in the face of the party's call to cut the budget.

Despite that call, State Sen. Martha Bark, another Republican from Burlington County, said she had requested $2.8 million to help pay for local school busing, and for technology upgrades to schools that feed into Lenape Regional High School.

"I'm putting this in because my constituents asked me to, and that's my job," said Bark, who represents the Eighth District.

Assemblymen Jack Connors and Herb Conaway, Democrats who represent the Seventh District, voiced frustration at not being able to do, this year, what towns expect them to do: bring home the bacon.

"People have been grateful that we have been able to get these things in the budget because it means their local taxpayers are not footing the bill for these things," Conaway said.

It looks like taxpayers in Woolwich ultimately will foot the entire bill for a new municipal building. Township Administrator Jack Lipsett said it had to be built - with or without the $10 million requested from the state.

"We're going to have to bond it," he said.

Meanwhile, officials in Washington Township, where Moriarty is mayor, remained hopeful that the $500,000 requested for park rangers on their behalf by Assemblyman David Mayer (D., Gloucester) would make the cut. The surrounding region takes advantage of the park system and all its recreational, educational and entertainment offerings, Moriarty said.

"Why should we be providing a countywide service alone?" Moriarty said. "We can't run all these programs unless we have help."

Codey said he didn't think that limiting extra state spending to regional or statewide projects necessarily was the best course of action - but one that would have to do this year.

"Next year we'll have some time to think about it, and set up some parameters," he said.

Legislators rushed to change the process this year after Christie launched what appears to be a far-reaching investigation into the grantmaking process. The probe stems from the investigation into State Sen. Wayne Bryant (D., Camden), who was indicted in March on charges relating to his part-time job at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Prosecutors say Bryant was hired, in effect, to use his influence as chairman of the powerful Senate budget committee to steer millions in state funding to the school.

Bryant, who plans to retire from the Senate at the end of the year, did not respond to a call seeking what funding requests, if any, he was making.

Grants Sought by Lawmakers

Third District

State Sen. Stephen Sweeney and Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Douglas Fisher, all Democrats from Gloucester County, are requesting more than $50 million in grants for local projects, including:

$1.6 million for a new water tower in Clayton.

$260,000 for lighting at Bennett Field in Paulsboro.

$84,000 to replace three police cruisers and $1.3 million to build phase one of a soccer complex in Harrison Township.

$700,000 to upgrade a sewer plant in Swedesboro.

$200,000 for emergency generators for public works buildings and fire companies in West Deptford.

Fourth District

Assemblyman David Mayer (D., Gloucester) is requesting $500,000 for park rangers in Washington Township.

Seventh District

Assemblyman Jack Connors (D., Burlington) is requesting $100,000 to restart a nutrition center for seniors in Willingboro.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D., Burlington) is requesting $60,000 for Providence House Domestic Violence Services' Legal Advocacy.

What grants legislative leaders say will be given statewide:

A total, for all 120 lawmakers, of less than $20 million.

Grants benefiting regional or statewide causes - not just local projects.

Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 609-989-8990 or jmoroz@phillynews.com.

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