Home COVID-19 Language in New NJ Budget Plan Could Impact Liberty State Park

Language in New NJ Budget Plan Could Impact Liberty State Park

by Alena Competello
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New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a $7.7 billion stop-gap budget on Tuesday, allowing the state government to keep running through September 30th. The Democratic-controlled Legislature passed the spending bill Monday against Republican objections. At his daily Coronavirus press briefing on June 30th, Governor Murphy said, “In the most essential terms, this three-month plan can be described in two words: cuts and uncertainty, and it contains plenty of each.” But what Governor Murphy didn’t say has some people, including Jersey City Mayor Steven M. Fulop, a fellow Democrat, crying foul. The 110-page spending bill includes language that permits the state Department of Environmental Protection to seek bids to enhance “cultural, recreational, and local economic opportunities” in state parks, including Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

But, as of July 1st, Governor Murphy said during his daily press briefing that his “administration … does not intend to use this language to pursue a solicitation to Liberty State Park,” according to NJ.com. “That language was inserted into the budget by the Legislature.”

Still, lawmakers, including Senator Loretta Weinberg, who ultimately voted yes on the bill, say budget briefings failed to include any mention of developing state parks. Weinberg called the move a “sneaky, backdoor attempt to change important public policy.” Here’s what we know so far:

liberty state park jersey city

The Bill in Question

The stopgap budget covers July, August, and September and moves the start of the state’s fiscal year from July 1st to October 1st, essentially creating a fifth quarter of 2020. The plan is to give Governor Murphy and lawmakers time to assess and deal with the economic fallout that has resulted from the spread of COVID-19. This is the latest move in curbing the consequences of Coronavirus since the governor declared a State of Emergency in early March. The new budget allocates greater funding to higher education and the Department of Labor and does not rely on any revenue from new or increased taxes. But it’s what’s buried deep in the language of the bill that is giving some pause.

Read More: Hoboken Schools Set Plans to Reopen in September

“On or before September 1st, 2020, the Department of Environmental Protection {DEP} shall issue a solicitation to engage the private for-profit and non-profit sector in reducing maintenance and capital investment backlog and environmental remediation at state parks in order to facilitate enhanced cultural, recreational and local economic opportunities for New Jersey residents through appropriate means including leaseholds,” the bill reads.

The Fallout

This language has drawn swaths of criticism, including from lawmakers like Senator Brian Stack who voted in favor of the bill. Senator Stack released a joint statement with Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro and Assemblyman Raj Mukerji, saying, “Now, more than ever, we must fight to ensure that Liberty State Park remains a free, open, urban green oasis protected from commercialization and privatization. That is why we have sponsored the Liberty State Park Protection Act and call for its immediate passage.”

Mayor Fulop took his vitriol to Twitter on Wednesday.

Local activists are lending their voices to the fight too, circulating a petition to protect and preserve Liberty State Park without privatization.

See More: 21 Headlines You Missed in Hoboken + Jersey City This Week

What’s at Stake

Liberty State Park has been at risk of privatization for years. In 2015, the DEP rescinded its original plans to develop the park. In 2017, a Texas company’s proposal to build a marina at the park’s south end was denied. Most recently, in 2018, Paul Fireman, owner of Liberty National Golf Course, approached the DEP about leasing the state-owned peninsula known as Caven Point to expand the private club. Meanwhile, attempts to protect the public space have stalled, leaving the door open for Fireman {and others} to argue for privatization.

As the battle over Liberty State Park rages on, who will be the winner is anyone’s guess.

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