SOMERSET – The influx of federal stimulus money dominated much of the conversation here Saturday night at the Garden State Equality dinner, with some Democrats privately terrified by the prospect of misspent money ballooning into a crippling headline just in time for the gubernatorial election.
As there are just two gubernatorial contests nationwide this year, New Jersey becomes the de facto frontline for President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, and what most anticipate will be a Meadowlands charm offense by the president on the eve of the election could boomerang badly for Democrats if they mismanage the historic infusion of cash.
After meeting a week ago with Obama, who told governors to pay particular attention to ensuring stimulus transparency, Gov. Jon Corzine said New Jersey would receive $17.5 billion from the federal aid package, or $7.5 billion in tax benefits, and $10 billion for Medicaid, and investments in highways, roads, bridges, mass transit, and healthcare information technology.
“Every dollar needs to be accounted for,” Newark City Councilman Ronald C. Rice said on his way into the dinner attended by 800 people.
Few if any elected officials appear willing to turn down dollars – “There are certainly projects in Hoboken that could benefit,” said At-Large Hoboken Councilman Pete Cammarano, a candidate for mayor, but at this point, the delivery systems for how dollars get distributed remains uncertain.
“We’re going to be as transparent as required by state and federal mechanism, whatever they put in place,” said Phil Alagia, chief of staff to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. “Whatever they set up we will adhere to. There are so many different areas. It’s still very early in the process, and we have a wish list of park projects, roads paving projects, etc., for which we would like to receive money.”
In a telephone interview on Monday morning, state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville) said he hopes the Senate passes his “Transparency in Government Act,” which would create a Website where every dollar of state spending may be easily and quickly accessed by the public.
“My sense is it’s going to happen,” said Pennacchio. “The governor mentioned it in his State of the State and (state senate President) Dick Codey (D-West Orange) has graciously come on board as a co-prime sponsor. It’s important that the bill be acted on in bipartisan fashion. Every time the state spends money we need sunshine and oversight.”
Codey confirmed the bill would move in the Senate – but not until the spring.
“At the moment, it seems the holdup is an antiquated computer system,” said the Senate President, who did not know whether the Pennacchio/Codey plan would ultimately serve as the main public access point to follow the money New Jersey receives from the feds.