Christie plans to siphon off hundreds of millions earmarked for environment

Gov. Chris Christie does not like raising taxes, but diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from environmental programs is apparently among the tough choices the administration is willing to make to balance New Jersey’s budget.

The issue arose during the annual budget meeting of the state Department of Environmental Protection, as lawmakers questioned repeatedly the diversion of money targeted toward environmental needs to other purposes.

In the administration’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget, the spending plan it has recommended to the Democratic-controlled legislature suggests diverting nearly $20 million in funds targeted to closing old abandoned garbage dumps, cleaning up hazardous waste sites, and preventing pollution from manufacturing sites, among other things.

Democratic legislators greeted the diversions skeptically, particularly the decision to use $6.8 million in money from a hazardous waste cleanup fund to pay for the replacement of trees destroyed during an expansion project along the New Jersey Turnpike.

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DEP Commissioner Bob Martin told the panel that the state has trimmed the number of contaminated sites it is dealing with down to 15,000 from 20,000 when the administration took office. About 9,000 of those sites will fall into a new effort to speed up cleanups by having them overseen by licensed professionals, he said.

“Why are we taking $6.8 million from hazardous waste when we have 9,000 sites?” asked Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Bergen), the chairman of the panel. “If we have such a need for cleaning up the sites, wouldn’t there be other places to look for the funding?”

Other lawmakers asked Martin about the diversion of $200 million in clean energy funds, a program aimed at reducing energy use and promoting less polluting sources of energy to balance the budget. The move is actually being engineered by the state Treasury Department, which oversees the state Board of Public Utilities, the agency running the program.

Asked about the diversions following the meeting, Martin replied, “We’ve made the tough decisions in the past to make sure we balanced the books,” he said. “Overall, we’re going to be in a better position.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a frequent critic of the administration, disputed that view.

“It seems like they are looking under every seat cushion to find the change they need,” said Tittel, about the diversion of money geared to environmental programs, an argument echoed by the New Jersey Environmental Federation last week.

The organization, which endorsed Christie when he ran for election, gave the Governor a “D” on his environmental record, citing among other things his diversion of nearly $680 million in clean energy funds during his tenure.

In the present DEP budget, the administration proposes diverting a variety of environmental funds to help balance the budget or use the funds for other purposes than they were originally designed.

They include moving $10 million from a fund to help close old landfills to the general fund; $1.6 million from a fund used to prevent pollution from manufacturing facilities, paid by those companies, again to the general fund; $1.1 million from a fund designed to provide the public with information about toxic chemicals used in the workplace, again paid for by businesses and earmarked to the general fund; $473,000 from a fund that is designed to curb emissions that contribute to global climate change.

The diversion of funds is not an anomaly. The administration is proposing diverting tens of millions of dollars from a program to help develop affordable housing in the current budget as well.

At the hearing, Martin also told lawmakers his agency will propose to the governor a range of options to finance open space preservation through a stable source of funding, a campaign promise by Christie, but failed to provide any details.

The state has a total of about $300 million in funding for the next two years to finance open space and farmland preservation, Martin said. It typically spends about $200 million a year for both programs, he said.

In the past, the state has mostly relied on more costly bond issues to preserve open space and farmland, a practice that has led conservationists to push for a system of preservation that would not require bonding.

Asked for more details following the hearing, Martin declined to say more than that they would involve a range of options. In the past some proposals have advocated raising a surcharge on water use, a possibility repeatedly rejected by various governors.

Martin was circumspect about what the administration would propose. “The governor does not want tax increases,” he said.

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