TRENTON — Add protecting Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst to the list of Democratic priorities that Senate President Stephen Sweeney and other New Jersey lawmakers want to see funded in the upcoming fiscal year.
The alternative state budget that Democrats in control of the New Jersey Legislature plan to send to Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday restores a $200,000 Department of Military and Veterans Affairs appropriation to support efforts to protect the joint base and other New Jersey military installations from future base closures or defense cutbacks.
Since 2015 when the appropriation was first budgeted, the state has used the money to contract with Cassidy and Associates, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying firm specializing in defense issues.
Murphy left the money out of the proposed $37.4 billion spending plan he unveiled in March, as well as millions more in state spending on programs supported by Democratic lawmakers in past budgets, including programs for developmentally or intellectually disabled residents, wage increases for direct support professionals that assist disabled residents, child advocacy programs and cancer research, among others.
Sweeney has described Murphy's elimination of that funding as a key sticking point in the ongoing budget dispute between lawmakers and the administration, and he said Wednesday the money for military installation protection is among the priorities that are included in the $36.5 billion rival plan lawmakers plan to vote on Thursday.
"It's critically important," Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said Wednesday about the funding for military installation protection while at an unrelated event at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Pemberton Township, just a stone's throw from the gates of the joint base.
The base is home to more than 40,000 jobs, making it the state's second-largest employer.
Sweeney said former Congressman Jim Saxton, of Mount Holly, and Col. Mike Warner, the retired former commander of Fort Dix, originally approached him about providing state money for lobbying and other actions to prepare for future rounds of base closures in 2015 when the $200,000 appropriation was first created.
"They came to me a few years ago during the Christie administration and said, 'Look, we have to try to compete,'" Sweeney said, noting that other states devote substantial sums of money annually towards enhancing their state's installations and lobbying to gain money and missions to protect against possible future closures or cutbacks.
He said $200,000 amounted to the bare minimum the state should be spending to protect its installations.
"It should be more; I wish it was more. States like Maryland are spending $5 million a year lobbying. Look, the joint base is the second largest employer in the state of New Jersey. We cannot afford to lose this base. It would be devastating to this economy. So we're very supportive of providing resources that at least put us on the field."
Murphy has said he's open to restoring many of the spending items that Sweeney and other lawmakers want added, but he is demanding lawmakers agree to "sustainable" revenue increases needed to support that and other spending initiatives, including increased state funding for NJ Transit and public schools.
The latter issue has been particularly important to Sweeney, who has promised to let the government shut down for the second time in two years unless a fair school-funding plan is advanced.
Murphy wants lawmakers to agree to raising more than $1.5 billion in taxes, largely by increasing the income tax on earnings over $1 million and by returning the sales tax to 7 percent.
Sweeney and the lawmakers he helps lead prefer to finance the new spending with a corporate business tax hike.
The dispute threatens a shutdown unless the two sides can reach an agreement by June 30.
Murphy has not commented specifically about the $200,000 appropriation to support preparations for a future round of base closures, but his administration has found money to continue contracting with Cassidy and Associates for the near term.
While $200,000 was included in the current 2018 fiscal year spending plan Murphy inherited from Christie, it was never spent by the prior administration. Murphy's administration was able to cobble together $66,000 to contract with the firm from May 15 through the Sept. 15, but no decision has been made about extending the contract beyond that date.
In order to do so, Murphy will likely need to leave the $200,000 appropriation included in the lawmakers' rival plan untouched once it reaches his desk.
As governor, he has the authority to veto the budget outright or use his line-item veto power to eliminate specific spending or budget language.
Sweeney and other lawmakers have said preserving the $200,000 appropriation and the other additions in the new budget is imperative.
"Why would he take the tools that we need to fight to keep 44,000 jobs when you claim you want to grow the economy?" Sweeney said.
Joining Sweeney in support of the funding restoration was Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, and Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-7th of Mount Laurel, who both pushed for the base protection money to be included in the budget plan drafted as an alternative to governor's plan.
"It's something the governor left out of the budget. We need it, and if it's not in there this year, it won't be in there in the years afterward. So I wanted to make sure it is in there," said the assemblywoman.
Singleton said he hoped the appropriation could be increased but was content that it was restored in the legislative proposal.
"The joint base not only means so much to our national security but also the economy here in Burlington County. With Congress looking to downsize its military installations, we want to make sure we're doing everything possible to put our joint base in the best position to stay viable," he said. "We want to send a strong message that we believe in our joint base and want it protected."