TRENTON – State officials are taking input on how to spend New Jersey’s remaining COVID recovery funding from the federal American Rescue Plan, and activist groups had no shortage of ideas at a by-invitation hearing held Monday.

New Jersey was allocated $6.24 billion in fiscal recovery funds. Dennis Zeveloff, a policy advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy, said the state has allocated around $4.7 billion, including $1.4 billion in the new budget adopted a month ago, and has roughly $1.4 billion still to be deployed.

“Our sort of North Star here has been to find one-time programs that maximum impact in terms of both spurring COVID recovery and building a stronger and fairer New Jersey,” Zeveloff said.

Anyone with a suggestion for how to spend the money can email it to outreach@nj.gov, though speaking slots at the virtual forums are limited. Another hearing will be held Thursday, and more could be added.

Five of the 25 people who pitched the Murphy administration on ways to spend the funds said some of it should be used for hazard pay bonuses for essential workers.

They are suggesting $1,000 for full-time employees and $500 for part-timer ones who had to keep working in person during the pandemic’s first 14 months. Minnesota, Connecticut and Puerto Rico have done something similar.

“While we have been applauded as essential workers and heroes, we have yet to be materially compensated for the risks we have experienced,” said April Fitch, a security officer at Newark Liberty International Airport.

“Whether you call it premium pay, hazardous duty pay, emergency duty pay or anything else, these state employees have earned this,” said Steve Tully, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees New Jersey Council 63.

There were a lot of requests for $100 million to be allocated to one cause or another.

Donna Chiera, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, said $100 million should be committed to higher education, with a special focus on financially distressed universities in need of help: $25 million each to William Paterson and New Jersey City University, $15 million to Rider and $5 million to Thomas Edison State University.

“Thomas Edison, which services are veterans, is looking to sell a portrait, a painting, a very famous painting for $5 million because they’re going to start looking at how they could shore up their budget,” Chiera said.

Chiera suggested the other $30 million go to community colleges, in payments that would be more closely managed by the state than the support grants to financially distressed schools.

“If we could invest out of federal funds $100 million to renovate a basketball arena at Rutgers and to build an indoor football facility practice field, we could certainly invest $100 million in the true mission of higher education in New Jersey,” she said.

Here’s an incomplete list of other suggestions:

Reduce state debt

Put money into the unemployment fund to reduce business taxes

NJ Transit

Housing affordability

Community schools

Language access and cultural competency

Prevention of hate and bias crimes

Student mental health

Recovery checks for immigrants who aren’t legal residents

Expand recreation options in low-income communities

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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These are the best hiking spots in New Jersey

A trip to New Jersey doesn't have to be all about the beach. Our state has some incredible trails, waterfalls, and lakes to enjoy.

From the Pine Barrens to the Appalachian Trail to the hidden gems of New Jersey, you have plenty of options for a great hike. Hiking is such a great way to spend time outdoors and enjoy nature, plus it's a great workout.

Before you go out on the trails and explore some of our listeners' suggestions, I have some tips on hiking etiquette from the American Hiking Society.

If you are going downhill and run into an uphill hiker, step to the side and give the uphill hiker space. A hiker going uphill has the right of way unless they stop to catch their breath.

Always stay on the trail, you may see side paths, unless they are marked as an official trail, steer clear of them. By going off-trail you may cause damage to the ecosystems around the trail, the plants, and wildlife that live there.

You also do not want to disturb the wildlife you encounter, just keep your distance from the wildlife and continue hiking.

Bicyclists should yield to hikers and horses. Hikers should also yield to horses, but I’m not sure how many horses you will encounter on the trails in New Jersey.
If you are thinking of bringing your dog on your hike, they should be leashed, and make sure to clean up all pet waste.

Lastly, be mindful of the weather, if the trail is too muddy, it's probably best to save your hike for another day.

I asked our listeners for their suggestions of the best hiking spots in New Jersey, check out their suggestions: