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Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem, speaks with Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., R-Union, Essex, Morris and Somerset, before the Governor’s address to a Joint Legislative Session on property tax reform.

Sweeney Bills Merged To Form Stronger, More Comprehensive Standards to Support Storm Victims

TRENTON – Senate President Steve Sweeney’s legislation establishing a “Sandy Bill of Rights” was approved by a Senate committee on Monday after it was strengthened and expanded with the merger of a companion bill. The combined legislation would help victims of Superstorm Sandy get the aid, assistance and answers they need and would bring more transparency and fairness to the distribution of recovery aid.

“It’s abundantly clear that the Sandy recovery effort has been riddled with mistakes and errors,” said Senator Sweeney. “Victims of the storm have become victims of the recovery. The ‘Sandy Bill of Rights’ will correct many of these problems.”

The Bill of Rights, S-1306/1804, would do several things, including requiring a plain-language explanation of what is needed to be eligible and to apply for Sandy recovery programs; the right to know where your relief application stands and what additional information is needed; the right to know why your application was rejected or why you were placed on a waiting list and the right to appeal a denial of funding.

Incorporated into the legislation was a companion bill, S-1804, also authored by Senator Sweeney, that would require the Christie administration to bring more fairness and reason to the distribution of federal Sandy recovery funds. The combined bill would force the administration to allocate the aid more equitably and with more transparency.

The legislation was voted out of the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee with a vote of 4 to 0 with one abstention.

“The administration’s failure to manage the recovery process has fallen on the backs of the people who need help the most,” said Senator Sweeney. “The governor shouldn’t be shifting the blame to the federal government. Everyone needs to be working to get it right here in New Jersey so the storm’s victims can rebuild their homes and businesses and try to put their lives back together.”

Recent media accounts and advocacy groups have reported various problems in the Sandy aid process.  For example, some families were being told they would lose their aid for failure to provide certain documents, while others were given no such ultimatum.  In other instances, numbers show that funding has been denied at higher rates for African American and Latino residents despite being equally hard hit by the storm.

A line of victims recently told a legislative committee that a state contractor responsible for getting people back in their homes had repeatedly lost their applications and often couldn’t answer the most basic of questions. The Christie administration quietly cancelled the contract with this firm, and state officials have said little about how they will proceed with this critical task.

The Sandy Bill of Rights will help make sure the victims are treated fairly and help ensure a fairer distribution of the federal aid, Senator Sweeney said. The combined bill would require that any state action plan or amendment submitted to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for the proposed use of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery aid for relief efforts associated with Hurricane Sandy include provisions to make the distribution of aid more equitable and transparent.

As part of building public awareness of the many problems that have plagued the recovery effort, the Senate President has traveled across the state to meet with individuals and families who have failed to get the information they need. He has been in Perth Amboy, TomsRiver, Moonachie, Linden, and Keansburg.

“Traveling across the state has shown me that, while the locations change, the problems are all the same.  People have not been able to get even the simplest of answers. They don’t know where they stand on the waiting list, they don’t know why they were rejected for funding, and they don’t know who can provide them these answers. This simply cannot be allowed to continue,” said Senator Sweeney.

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