The governor’s proposed state budget for the upcoming fiscal year eliminates $200,000 for the state Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs that had been used by the previous administration to contract a lobbying firm to provide advice on actions the state could take to enhance its military installations and prepare for a future round of base closures.
Gov. Phil Murphy talks a lot about his goal of making New Jersey into a stronger, fairer state.
But does his plans also include helping Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst become a stronger military installation?
The question has been raised in response to the new governor’s proposed state budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which eliminates $200,000 for the state Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs that had been used by the previous administration to contract with Cassidy and Associates, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying firm specializing in defense issues. The firm provides advice on actions the state could take to enhance its military installations and prepare for a future round of base closures.
In addition to eliminating the funding for the consultant, Murphy, who marked his 100th day in office last week, has yet to appoint a Military and Defense Economic Ombudsman to help coordinate state efforts to enhance and protect the state’s military installations.
The position of ombudsman was created by a Christie administration executive order but it was made a permanent part of state government in January when Republican Gov. Chris Christie — on his final day in office — signed into law legislation codifying the post.
Brigadier Gen. Jemal J. Beale, who commands the New Jersey National Guard and leads the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, told members of the Assembly and Senate Budget committees this week that his department has recommended two individuals from the state for consideration for the ombudsman position, and he expects Murphy will make that appointment shortly.
Dan Bryan, the governor’s press secretary, also said Kirtan Mehta, a former lobbyist and staffer for U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, was recently hired to serve as the administration’s director of federal affairs and would fill the role of New Jersey’s advocate in Washington D.C. He did not specify if Manchin had experience with defense issues and base closures.
Beale stressed that the governor understands the importance of the military installations, but that there are still discussions about how best to lobby for their protection and enhancement.
“There is nobody in New Jersey, who doesn’t want to keep all our federal installations,” Beale said after testifying before the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday, adding that there were still discussions about the best way to go about protecting them.
“The right way is the one that works. We have some really good elected officials who have years of experience ... I think we’re going to be fine,” he said.
The last round of closures was over a decade ago, in 2005, and resulted in the consolidation of Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and Naval Air Station Lakehurst into Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the nation’s only tri-service installation. But it also resulted in the closure of Fort Monmouth in North Jersey and the loss of thousands of high-paying science and engineering jobs there.
The joint base became well-positioned to survive a new round of consolidations and closures last year, when it was named as a preferred destination for the Air Force’s next generation of air-refueling tankers, the KC-46. But New Jersey leaders have warned that other missions on the joint base could potentially be at risk during a new round of the base closures, along with those at the state’s other military installations.
Other states devote substantial sums of money annually to enhance and protect their military installations from possible closures or cutbacks.
Advocates for the joint base often speak of those other states’ multi-million dollar investments and the need for New Jersey to remain vigilant to protect against so-called “mission creep” when missions are moved from installations without a base closure and the importance of enhancing the state’s remaining installations so they can attract new missions, jobs and equipment.
“I do know that states that have a healthy support of military installations continue to gain jobs and continue to gain economic benefits,” said Gino Sciorilli, chairman of the Ocean County Military Support Committee.
He said the joint base alone contributes close to $7 billion towards the state’s economy.
“If you said invest $200,000 to get $6.9 billion back, I’d make that investment,” Sciorilli said.
Securing a consultant who specializes in defense issues and base closures has proven to be useful, said Col. Michael Warner, a former commander of Fort Dix and a leader with the Defense Enhancement Coalition, a nonprofit group of residents and business leaders that advocates for government actions to protect and enhance the joint base.
“Having that resource available for the state has served us well,” Warner said, citing a 1993 round of base closures when a consultant helped lawmakers convince members of a federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission spare McGuire Air Force Base from being axed.
Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd of Toms River, whose district includes the joint base, also lashed out at the Murphy administration after he was informed that state funding for the installations was eliminated.
“His priority appears to be legalizing pot and giving free college tuition that he’s too busy to focus on 41,000 jobs on the joint base,” MacArthur said, noting that other states are spending “millions” each year to assist their state’s installations attract more missions.
“If the state is going to do nothing, it hurts,” he said.
New Jersey first contracted with lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates in 2015 to study issues related to the state’s installations. The state entered into a new contract with the firm in subsequent years to provide advice.
The money was included in the current 2018 fiscal year spending plan inherited by Murphy from Christie, but the prior administration never spent it before leaving office in January, according to the Office of Legislative Services, which analyzed the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs budget.
Murphy’s administration has cobbled together $66,000 to contract with the consultant from May 15 through the Sept. 15, but no decision has been made about extending the contract beyond that date.
Since Murphy’s budget proposal eliminated funding for the consulting contract, it will likely fall to the Democratic-controlled Legislature to decide whether to restore the funding in a revised budget that lawmakers are expected to write and return to Murphy to consider.
As governor, Murphy will have the authority to sign into law the budget as written or use his line-item veto power to eliminate any spending and budget language he may oppose.
A balanced budget must be signed into law by July 1.
State legislators from Burlington County also expressed concerns about the loss of funding for the consultant, arguing that the military installations play a vital role in the state’s economy and in the national defense.
“While the general indicated in his testimony that the Department will be fine without the $200,000 this year, I am concerned that if this money is cut from this year’s budget it won’t be there in future budgets,” Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-7th of Mount Laurel said Tuesday. “I worry that without this money there will not be enough resources to advocate for protecting the key military services that our state provides. This will need to be addressed again in the future, as protecting our military’s Joint Base from closure is vital to all New Jerseyans.”
State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, who serves on the Senate Budget Committee and was also recently named the new chair of the Senate Military and Veterans Committee, said lawmakers recognize the importance of the installations and the need for the state to devote resources towards their protection.
“I think it’s important for us to make sure we devote whatever resources are necessary to make sure we’re securing the joint base, not only for our economic standpoint for Burlington County, but also because I think it’s critical for our country’s military mission,” Singleton said Tuesday. “So as we go through this budget, as I’ve done in the past, I’ll look to make sure the resources are there to protect the joint base in every capacity.”
Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, R-8th of Evesham, also brought up the issue during the Budget Committee hearing.
“We need money in the budget specifically for the preservation of our military installations. We need to stay vigilant,” she said.