Sweeney on $10B surplus: ‘We need to fix things … not create programs that you can’t support years later’

State Senate president, on virtual town hall, urges caution and restraint on what he calls a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

Anjalee Khemlani/ROI-NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney met with the ROI-NJ Editorial Board on Wednesday.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney said New Jersey should not be frivolous with its unexpected surplus of more than $10 billion.

Sweeney (D-West Deptford), speaking at a virtual town hall hosted by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said now is not the time to check off boxes on a wish list — an action that often results in more spending down the line.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “We need to fix things, and not create programs that you can’t support years later and have to add additional costs to.

“The biggest concern I have is that, instead of fixing things, people are going to see this money and say, ‘Oh, now I can finally go build that park.’ But, once you build that park, you have to pay to maintain it. How about if you fix the longstanding problems, like water infrastructure, for example.”

While Sweeney said it is important for the state to pay down its debt, he said he is not opposed to spending — pushing targeted spending that will benefit workers and the economy.

He noted reopening workforce development centers in the state, which he said would be a big help with the current hiring crisis.

“You will see in the budget where we are investing in workforce development,” he said. “It is critical.

“We have to give people opportunities to get trained. We have to do everything we can to put people into position to get the jobs that are out there right now.”

The surplus comes from a number of areas.

For starters, the state has $6 billion in COVID-19 relief provided through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. In addition, state Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio said revenue collections in New Jersey are expected to hit an all-time high.

Muoio said the Treasury is now projecting a total combined surplus of $6.94 billion to close out Fiscal Year 2022, which is a $4.74 billion increase over February projections.

All of this means the state’s budget talks will be far different than any in recent years.

“I don’t know how to describe what is going on right now,” Sweeney said. “Clearly, there is no crystal ball. I’ve been in the Legislature since 2002, and we have never had money — this is the first time that we have ‘real’ money.”

Sweeney said the Legislature is eager to work with Gov. Phil Murphy on priorities.

“We will be putting together a list of things that need to be done,” Sweeney said. “If we do this in a smart way, think about what $6.5 billion into the economy, out of nowhere, can do for us.”