The start of the 2017 fiscal year, on July 1, is the date when all revenue from the state gas tax will be used to pay off debt, leaving no cash for new construction projects. The fund also is at its borrowing limit. “The TTF will have some carryover into the new fiscal year, but not through the summer,” Acting Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer told the Assembly Budget Committee Wednesday morning. “We will not be in a position to advance capital projects or (provide) any local aid.” Committee democrats asked Hammer if he had proposed any ideas for renewing the trust fund to Gov. Chris Christie. Hammer said he had not and is expecting a solution to come from lawmakers. He also reported Christie’s comment that the TTF isn’t in crisis. “I would say it is not in crisis. I’m confident the Legislature and governor will work it out,” Hammer said. “There is still time for a collaborative approach.” But Assembly man Gary Schaer (D- Passaic), the budget committee chairman countered that the governor has rejected past proposals that centered around increasing the state gas tax, which has remained the same since 1988. Hamer said the $1.6 billion capital project budget under review is a place holder.
The Legislature yesterday (April 7) gave final approval to a bill that would allocate more than $140 million to fund long-stalled open-space and farmland preservation projects, setting up a possible confrontation with Gov. Chris Christie. The bill (S-969) easily passed without debate in the Assembly, but it differs in one key aspect from how the governor wants to spend money from a 2014 ballot initiative that authorized using a portion of corporate business taxes for land-preservation program. But in his proposed budget, Christie wants to use approximately $20 million out of the program to pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks, an allocation not included in the bill approved by lawmakers. The governor pocket vetoed an identical open-space measure this past January at the end of the lame-duck session, although he did not cite any specific reasons for not signing the bill. An opinion from the Office of Legislative Services said lawmakers did not authorize the appropriation when they approved the budget last June. The administration says the use of money to pay salaries and maintenance is permissible. Many conservationists and the New Jersey Farm Bureau, which had lobbied hard for passage of the ballot question, share that view. The initiative establishes a permanent funding source for land preservation instead of relying on state bond issues every few years. Other than the diversion of $20 million for salaries and maintenance at state parks, the bill would mark the first allocation from the new fund since it was passed a year-and-half ago. Even so, it still would provide less money for preservation programs, including historic structures, than was typically handed out to counties, local governments, and others in the past. It was not unusual for as much as $200 million a year to be spent. The bill, approved in a 53-16-3 vote, would lay out a spending program allocating about $80 million in next year’s budget and another $66 million in yet-to-be allocated money from the previous year. Under the bill, the bulk of the money would go to the state’s Green Aces program (61 percent), which funds open-space acquisition and park development. Thirty-one percent would be used for farmland preservation and 5 percent for historic preservation.
For the first time in several years, money collected from polluters as part of environmental- damage lawsuits will not be used to fund the state budget. That represents a departure from the past few years, when in excess of a hundred million dollars in natural- resources damage claims were used by the Christie administration and the Legislature to help balance the budget. That, however, is not going to be the case with next year’s proposed budget. Acting State Treasurer Ford Scudder told lawmakers last week that the administration does not anticipate any settlement money coming in from pending natural-resources damage claims filed by the state. In recent years, settlements that appeared in the budget ranged from $75 million to $150 million, according to Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex). The use of the money for budgetary reasons annoyed environmentalists who would have preferred to see all of it used to restore wetlands, marshes, and other natural resources harmed by polluters. The issue erupted last year when the administration settled a longstanding case against ExxonMobil for $225 million, far less than the $8.9 billion the state originally sought. The case primarily revolved around contamination at two refineries once owned by the company in Linden and Bayonne and involved more than 1,500 acres of marshes, wetlands and water. Only $50 million of that settlement is devoted to restoring natural resources; the rest went to paying off attorneys hired by the state to pursue the case and to the general fund. With no money from natural-resources damage claims, McKeon questioned whether the administration is being aggressive enough in pursuing cases against polluters, an argument endorsed by environmentalists. The administration, however, noted that it has brought in $174 million in settlements in natural-resources lawsuits, far more than the $50 million collected by prior administrations. The money from ExxonMobil is not included in that amount.
The next move in the ongoing efforts to reform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal is up to Gov. Chris Christie. A Port Authority reform bill sponsored by New Jersey Democrats that has passed both houses of the state Legislature is now sitting on Christie’s desk. The governor has endorsed much of the bill’s language, yet he’s not expected to sign it. And he’s already vetoed another attempt by lawmakers to reform the Port Authority back in 2014. The legislation before Christie, is the latest wrinkle in a long and tortuous argument over what to do about the agency in the wake of a serious of unpopular toll hikes in 2011 and 2013’s lane-closure scandal. Democrats feel strongly that lawmakers in New Jersey and New York should have more direct oversight of the agency. New Jersey Republicans have argued that reorganizing top Port Authority jobs and requiring more transparency and financial accounting is enough to do the job. What remains to be seen now is whether Christie rejects the Democrat’s measure outright, or issues a conditional veto with changes that would turn it into the less stringent bill that Christie has previously signaled he prefers. That bill has also already been signed into law in New York, which is important because the Port Authority is a bistate agency, and any legislation rewriting its guidelines must be approved by the legislatures and governors in New York and New Jersey. Many expect Christie to issue a conditional veto, though his office did not tip its hand when asked about the issue on Friday (April 8). Doing so would put new pressure on New Jersey lawmakers to consider getting at least some reform in place before the agency takes on several large projects, including a new Manhattan bus terminal and the planned Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River. The version of the reform bill now sitting on Christie’s desk won final approval in the New Jersey Legislature last week when the Assembly voted 67-0-6 in its favor. The same bill cleared the state Senate in February by a 25-9 margin. The New Jersey bill incorporates the version passed by New York lawmakers and signed into law last year by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is a Democrat. But it also goes several steps further, adding a provision that would give lawmakers in each state the power to compel top Port Authority officials to appear before them. The New Jersey bill would also require more independent oversight of capital projects. And it removes a change impacting union contracts and collective-bargaining rules that was inserted at the last minute into the New York bill.
The transportation sector- cars, buses, truck and trains- emits more CO2 than all of the power plants operating in the state. This is not true of all states, but reflects that New Jersey has one of the cleanest power portfolios in the nation. What is the major reason that New Jersey’s energy mix is so much cleaner than that of many other states? New Jersey is a leader in solar energy, with installations large and small- and even has the largest pole- attached solar installation in the world, but even with all the progress we have made, solar generates less than 3 percent of the energy New Jersey. So if it’s not solar, what is driving New Jersey’s clean energy leadership? Nuclear power. Roughly 50 percent of New Jersey’s energy is produced by nuclear power- without emitting CO2 (or other air pollutants). According to NEl, nuclear energy generates 98.5 percent of New Jersey’s carbon-free energy and is the only source that can produce large amounts of electricity around the clock. Solar cannot replace nuclear power because solar produces no power at night or on cloudy days. There are many researchers working at companies and universities trying to figure out a way to cost-effectively store electricity, but we are nowhere near that point yet. In order to generate 31.5 million megawatt hours of electricity from solar (the 2014 generation output of New Jersey’s four nuclear plants), it would cost billions, require more than 100 million solar panels and be spread over more than 177,000 acres. That would mean that every inch of Bergen County- border to border- would be covered with solar panels and in addition have enough left over to cover half of Hudson County. If carbon reduction is our goal, we need to acknowledge the role nuclear power plays and promote policies that recognize the large contribution it is already playing in these efforts.