A funding bill that would provide more than $60 billion in aid for the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort is currently being debated in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
The primary beneficiaries of the aid would be Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, three states that took the brunt of Sandy’s wrath and have seen damage estimates continue to rise well above President Barack Obama’s funding request.
The bill has been divisive. In both the Senate and Congress, legislators are questioning the appropriations, the allocation of the funds, the total, and the need to approve the aid all at once. Despite their differences, the majority of the country’s elected leaders in Washington D.C. agree that, in some form, the victims of Sandy are in need of federal financial aid.
Steve Lonegan disagrees.
New Jersey’s Americans for Prosperity State Director called on legislators to reject the bill, saying that aid would be a burden on the country’s taxpayers and would be misspent at all levels of government by officials glomming for every last nickel.
The bill, he said, would lead to a spending free-for-all and is merely an attempt to secure funding for wasteful endeavors by appealing to emotion.
“Tragic things happen every day to people – worse things than having your house flood – and we don’t hand them a check,” he said. “Having your shore house flood doesn’t rank. This is not a federal government responsibility. We need to suck it up and be responsible for taking care of ourselves.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s disaster estimate of nearly $37 billion is tantamount to a $119.51 tax increase for every single American, should the U.S. have to foot the bill, Lonegan said, adding that he doubted that much aid would even reach affected residents. With the country facing a fiscal cliff, Lonegan said Sandy aid shouldn’t be a priority now.
Shore towns along New Jersey’s coasts have been devastated. Families whose homes have been destroyed remain uncertain about their long-term living situations as the Federal Emergency Management Agency pays out hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and continues to scramble to find temporary housing for those still in need. Businesses have been lost, lives upturned.
Still, Lonegan, a life-long New Jersey resident, longtime mayor of Bogota in Bergen County, and a former gubernatorial challenger, remains defiant in the face of tragedy suffered by his fellow state residents, many of them struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together.
And he expects to be criticized for his thoughts, he said.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Is it going to get me attacked? Yes. But it’s the right thing. Everyone is screaming about debt, but oh, it’s OK just this time. This is unfair to the other people in this country.”
Much of Lonegan’s criticism of the funding bill has to do with where the money is going and how vague the appropriations are on their face. He said he’s seen this kind of thing before. As mayor during 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, a storm that also caused massive flood damage to parts of New Jersey, Lonegan said administrators were tasked with putting together a line budget for their disaster aid application. The fire department and police department wanted to replace functioning vehicles and equipment that hadn’t actually been damaged in the storm, he said. The recreation department also had a funding request: to replace the woodchips in the playground that had washed away.
Lonegan also has issue with who would benefit from aid, saying that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for a millionaire’s vacation home. The misconception that only vacation homes were damaged in Sandy is one leaders of coastal towns with large, working middleclass neighborhoods like those in Toms River, Brick and Highlands, among others, continue to fight.
According to a report produced by the state’s Disaster Housing Task Force, following Hurricane Sandy.
The $60.4 billion disaster aid package was in part conceived by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Vice Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing FEMA.
The bill would aid New Jersey, specifically, in a number of ways, he said in a recent release. In all, $17 billion would be allocated for Community Development Block Grants, which would help rebuilding homes, buildings and public infrastructure not covered by FEMA. An additional $12 billion would be used to rebuild and improve transportation infrastructure and $5.3 billion would be put towards flood mitigation as part of a Coastal Recovery and Flood Control plan.
“This is a comprehensive disaster relief bill that will help New Jersey and other states recover and rebuild smarter and stronger after Superstorm Sandy. This bill provides funding for proven federal programs that will help rebuild and strengthen New Jersey's shore, transportation network, and support residents and small businesses that need help,” Lautenberg said in a release.
Support for aid and legislation as a result of Sandy has, in many cases, been bipartisan, another aspect of post-Sandy politics that’s causing some consternation for Lonegan. The de facto leader of the state’s Tea Party movement – Americans for Prosperity has organized Tea Party rallies and backed Tea Party candidates – Lonegan has remained a dogged fiscal conservative since taking up the mantel of AFP state director.
His call to congress to refuse Sandy aid hasn’t been shared by many, publicly at least. Bayshore Tea Party founder Barbara Gonzalez did not object entirely to Sandy aid but said in an email that her concern, like Lonegan’s, is where the money will go and what it will be used for.
Gonzalez, whose home received flood damage during Sandy, also acknowledged that taxes would likely have to go up in order to pay for the aid package, an idea she would be more comfortable with if it weren’t for already high tax rates, she sad.
“(O)ur taxes are going to go up to pay for the damage,” she wrote in an email. “Now, I understand that the damage was very extensive and it has to be paid for, but for Gods [sic] sake, our taxes are already outrageous.”
Lonegan said things need to slow down on the funding front. Developing an aid package that works is possible, he said, though he declined to say how much would be appropriate, though it requires much, much more scrutiny. It’s a job our government just isn’t capable of, especially with Democrats and Republicans working in concert, he said.
“(Spending) is out of control,” he said. “Whenever you see Democrats and Republicans put their arms around one another, hold on to your wallet.”