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Gov. Christie to People Still Waiting to Rebuild After Sandy: You Don’t Need Any Rights

Posted by Laura Denker on May 12th 2014

Veto of Unanimous, Bipartisan Bill Guts Critical Reforms, Invites Continued Abuses of Federal Funds

Today Governor Christie has taken yet another disappointing step in the Sandy recovery process. His conditional veto of the Sandy Bill of Rights eviscerates a common sense bill to make Sandy aid more fair and transparent that passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously, and leaves people impacted by Sandy still waiting for funds 18 months after the storm with little recourse.

“This bill reached across the aisles, ignoring political agendas to focus on what’s important – helping people still not made whole after Sandy recover,” said Kevin D. Walsh, an attorney with Fair Share Housing Center, which has advocated a fair and transparent recovery process. “Governor Christie’s veto is another disappointing move by this administration that has a major blind spot on the real suffering that has occurred as a result of the recovery being neither fair nor transparent.”

The veto starts by eliminating the very name of the Bill of Rights and concept that people impacted by Sandy have rights at all. Among specific provisions Governor Christie vetoed are:

• A requirement that benefits are prioritized to municipalities, impacted, and individuals who have the greatest need – thus setting the table for a continued misdirection of funds to communities barely impacted by Sandy such as Belleville;

• A requirement to conduct outreach to Spanish-speaking communities and prioritize funding for people who were misdirected in the first round by a lack of such outreach and inaccurate information on the State’s Spanish-language website;

• A provision to examine and report on why African-Americans and Hispanics were rejected at higher rates for Sandy programs than white non-Hispanic applicants.

• A provision to allow people waiting for funding to find out about their current position in a wait list by going to a secure website.

• A provision requiring all criteria used to determine whether or not someone is eligible for a given program to be made available on a State website, and that the State lay out criteria for how it is allocating funding step by step.

• A requirement that all appeals be decided in 50 days – instead allowing the state a minimum of 120 days to decide appeals and then allowing the state to unilaterally extend that time period.

Instead, Governor Christie substituted a process for the Commissioner of Community Affairs to come up with a report of what might be necessary in terms of additional standards and safeguards – and make recommendations in six months.

“People impacted by Sandy need help getting access to the rebuilding funds that Governor Christie sought in their name now, not after a six-month long study,” Walsh added. “The refusal of Governor Christie to implement the most basic safeguards raises new questions about who this recovery is really being conducted for.”

The Sandy Bill of Rights was the bipartisan product of the leaders from both houses. Initiated by Senate President Steve Sweeney who listened to victims and advocates including FSHC to draft the Bill, and a companion Assembly bill sponsored by Speaker Vincent Prieto and Housing and Community Development Chair Jerry Green, the Sandy Bill of Rights received unanimous support, passing 34-0 in the Senate and 72-0 in the Assembly on March 27. The legislation addressed many of the most common issues in the recovery process and provides enhanced rights for people applying for Sandy funds including but not limited to:

• The right to a plain language explanation of the application process for any recovery funds;
• The right to know why an application is rejected and to appeal that rejection with a specified timeframe;
• The right to know current status of an application and position on any wait list;
• The right to access information in English, Spanish, and any other language spoken by impacted communities;
• The right to a review of racial and ethnic disparities in funding and corrections of any problems;
• The right to have funds distributed by amount of damage and not based on political or other considerations;
• The right to transparent information online about how funds are being distributed.

Every single one of the above-mentioned sections was either entirely removed or substantially gutted by Christie’s conditional veto.

Fair Share Housing Center urged the Legislature to speedily schedule a vote to override Governor Christie’s conditional veto.

“We hope legislators from both sides of the aisle will stick to their convictions and original vote, and deliver people impacted by Sandy the transparent and fair process they deserve,” Walsh added.