FILE - NJ Newark shops, downtown, retail, business 9-19-2015

Shops and retailers are seen Sept. 19, 2015, along Broad Street in downtown Newark, New Jersey.

(The Center Square) – New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy remains noncommittal about using federal COVID relief money to offset millions of dollars that New Jersey small businesses must pay to replenish the state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) fund.

New Jersey businesses are on the hook for roughly $885 million to replenish the fund, starting with $252 million this month. Republican lawmakers have urged the governor to use federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) money rather than asking businesses to pay.

However, Murphy, a Democrat, bristled at the assertion that it is a tax increase on small businesses. He pointed to legislation he signed to assess the increase over three years.

“It was to smooth out a process that otherwise would’ve been very abrupt for small businesses,” Murphy said during a Wednesday briefing, according to a transcript. “We’ve put at this point about $775 million into small businesses since the beginning of this pandemic. Only California and New York have put more into the small business community than New Jersey.

“As you may remember, we’re the 11th largest state population-wise, so we’re punching way above our weight, and we still have American Rescue Plan money that we want to responsibly and carefully invest in the state over the next now what will be 27 months,” the governor added. “We’ll do that in a responsible way, unlike some of the way we’ve spent monies that have come our way in the past and certainly small businesses will be a big part of that.”

The federal government sent New Jersey more than $6 billion in ARP funding.