nj.com: Christie quietly left $100M for opioid programs. What will Murphy do?

1/23/2018

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks before signing the first executive order of his administration in Trenton, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. The order addresses pay inequality between the sexes. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks before signing the first executive order of his administration in Trenton, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. The order addresses pay inequality between the sexes. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Before leaving office, Gov. Chris Christie did more than transfer $39.4 million from education programs to fund the anti-opioid commercials that have been all over the state's television sets.

He also stockpiled roughly $100 million more from the state budget for programs to combat the deadly drug epidemic, state lawmakers told NJ Advance Media.

The question is: What will happen to all of it now that Gov. Phil Murphy has succeeded Christie? 

The discovery of the $100 million fund came as a surprise as Murphy, a Democrat, and the Democrat-controlled state Legislature consider how to continue the battle that Christie, a Republican, publicly waged against the drug epidemic -- and whether to end the TV ad campaign. 

State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Senate health committee said it wasn't clear what the money was originally intended for.

Most of the $39.4 million spent on the "Reach NJ" ad campaign came from money set aside in the Education Department's budget for college tuition grants, debt service on school construction projects and an expansion of the preschool program, according to an analysis by the Office of Legislative Services which Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg D-Bergen requested.

NJ Spotlight was the first to report where the $39.4 million came from on Thursday.

"All of those programs are important -- preschool and education," Vitale said. "And this happened during the year, so how do we know this was all unexpended money? Are we pitting one group against the other, and robbing Peter to pay Paul?"

Weinberg agreed.

"I certainly have concerns about the $40 million that went into this TV ad with a shelf life," Weinberg said.

Christie has previously said some of the money for the ad campaign came from the preschool expansion account, but every school district that applied for money had received it. These were unexpended funds.

The politically connected public relations firm Kivvit held the state contract for the ad campaign spanning fiscal years 2017 and 2018, according to the analysis. 

Many, but not all, of the wall-to-wall TV ads feature Christie, who left office after eight years Tuesday when he was succeeded by Murphy.

It's a near certainty the ads will be scrapped, according to three sources familiar with Murphy's thinking. The sources asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the situation in public.

Dan Bryan, a spokesman for Murphy's office, declined to comment on whether the new governor is considering axing the ad campaign. 

Murphy said during an interview with NJ Advance Media last week that he won't appear in anti-opioid ads of his own.

"It's a crisis in every county and virtually every community in this state," Murphy said. "And I give the governor credit for throwing himself into this. Whether or not he's done it exactly the way we would do it, I defer on."

"I won't be in any commercials," he added. "But I would say we're gonna be very focused on this -- I'm not sure in the same way, though."

Vitale said he expected to sit down with the Murphy administration and plot out the next move. 

"What they plan to do is a thorough analysis of how it was spent and design a public health strategy that continues our success," Vitale said. 

At least 1,901 people died from opioid overdoses in New Jersey in 2016.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story misstated from which department's budget the Christie administration took the $39.4 million for the opioid ad campaign. It is the Department of Education.