N.J. Democrats fail to override Christie veto of Sandy bill

Posted: June 25, 2014

TRENTON - New Jersey Senate Republicans blocked Democrats' attempt to override Gov. Christie's conditional veto of proposed Hurricane Sandy "Bill of Rights" legislation Monday, a move Senate President Stephen Sweeney denounced as "sickening."

The bill passed both houses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature in March without a single "no" vote, but Christie, a Republican, conditionally vetoed it in May and sent revisions back to lawmakers. The governor said parts of the bill violated federal law and had "unquantifiable administrative costs."

"This is an opportunity to stand up and do the right thing," Sweeney, the bill's sponsor, said during a 45-minute debate on the Senate floor. "The governor cannot accept his administration has done a very poor job. And the people of the state of New Jersey have been impacted."

But with a 24-14 vote along party lines in the 40-member chamber, Sweeney fell short of the two-thirds majority he needed in both houses for a successful override. The vote came even as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle roundly criticized the state and federal recovery efforts.

The bill would give certain "rights" to individuals applying for or receiving benefits under a recovery or rebuilding program, including: a "plain language explanation" of requirements to apply for and receive aid; to appeal a denial of aid and obtain a decision within 50 days; to know the status of their application or where they stand on a waiting list by searching what would be a new state database, and fair access to recovery programs regardless of race or ethnicity.

Republicans, the majority of whom initially voted in favor of the bill, objected that several provisions violated federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations and laws. Those problems became clear after Christie's lawyers reviewed the bill, Republicans said.

"There are elements of this bill that are absolutely illegal," said state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth).

For example, she said, the bill would grant automatic approval to appeals if the state does not respond within 50 days. But to be eligible for HUD's Community Development Block Grants, applicants must demonstrate "unmet need," and the state's ability to respond to an appeal has no bearing on that eligibility requirement.

Plus, she said, HUD could require the state to repay any grants that were improperly distributed.

"We can't do that to people," Beck said. "We just can't."

Beck said the bill also runs afoul of federal regulations by prioritizing Spanish-speaking individuals in later funding rounds, and by setting aside funds for those who didn't receive benefits in a prior distribution round "due to the lack of clarity or transparency in the process."

"You can't move people to the front of the line because you say you didn't understand the program. HUD doesn't care," Beck said.

A HUD spokesman declined to comment on the legislation.

Sweeney spent much of the spring touring the state to meet with residents still seeking government assistance after the October 2012 storm destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses and caused some $36 billion in damage to the Garden State.

He trumpeted the bill as a way to provide greater transparency and expedite relief in the recovery process.

Political observers say Sweeney's travels across the state to talk about Sandy suggest he's gearing up for a gubernatorial run in 2017, and Monday's vote showed Democrats' attempt to steal Sandy as a winning issue from Christie. The governor's popularity soared in the storm's aftermath.

Asked by reporters whether he would post Christie's revised bill, Sweeney said: "Say we changed it. I guarantee you that if the governor said, 'I don't like this bill either,' and they worked on it and they sponsored it, they would roll over on it again."

"It's sickening," Sweeney said. "It's honestly sickening to me, to watch people that voted for something reverse themselves."

Democrats and Republicans did agree on one thing: With thousands still out of their homes, the state and federal response to the storm has been lackluster.

"These state rules are cumbersome. The delivery has been awful in many instances. The federal rules are written in a foreign language," said Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R., Monmouth).

"People can't comply with them. It's a collective failure - and one I'm distraught over."

"We bungled it," said Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex). "We were incompetent."


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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