Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill Friday afternoon establishing a state fund aimed at bolstering local media, but said the state doesn't have enough money to finance the program.
Murphy’s signature of Assembly Bill 3628 formally establishes the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, in which five universities and a 15-member board would oversee a $5 million fund and award grants to emerging local media outlets.
But, he said “most, if not all” of the money for the Consortium was used to fund federally mandated repairs and capital projects for the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority.
The civic information consortium was to be financed by a portion of the $332 million sale from two of New Jersey’s public broadcasting licenses.
According to Murphy, former Gov. Chris Christie diverted most of the proceeds to the general fund in the 2018 budget, which is why the state could not afford to finance the civic information consortium.
Jennifer Sciortino, a treasury spokesperson, said that only $6.3 million was left of the $322 million, and that it was being used for "critical capital needs and emergency repairs." The Governor's office wasn't immediately available for comment.
The Free Press Action Fund crafted the legislation and framework for the Civic Information Consortium and heavily backed its push through the Statehouse, while garnering public support for the measure.
"We're deeply disappointed, if indeed this money has been spent elsewhere. We're concerned that the state may have frittered away a first-of-its-kind opportunity to provide its residents with a remedy to New Jersey's local News Crisis," said Timothy Karr, a spokesperson for the Free Press Action Fund.
Karr added that he hopes Murphy's signature is "more than just an empty promise."
"New Jerseyans came out by the thousands to support this new concept for local journalism and civic engagement." Karr said. "Now that it's the law, the state needs to find the funding required to make it a reality."
The Free Press Action Fund initially sought a $100 million fund, but that was chipped away to the $5 million spelled out in A3628.
"Budgeting is about mathematics and priorities," Murphy said. "Instead of constantly relying on piecemeal gimmicks like one-shot infusions of diverted funds, the goal of my administration is to wean the state budgeting away from such diversions... I am hopeful that a sufficient amount of funding will be available to support the consortium as it begins its important work."