When customers pay their utility bills this year, a portion will go to keep the lights on not only at their homes, but also at state-run facilities — as well as to cover New Jersey Transit’s energy costs. In the proposed budget for the 2017 fiscal year, Gov. Chris Christie is once again diverting $112 million in state Clean Energy Funds to help pay New Jersey government’s utility bills. The practice of tapping into the fund is not new. Designed to finance a variety of programs to reduce energy use or promote cleaner ways of producing electricity than conventional power plants, it is one of several funds whose money in tight budget times has been used to balance spending. They include money from pollution settlements with corporations, funds intended to promote affordable housing, and energy taxes intended to go to local governments. Under the proposed budget, NJ Transit would receive $62 million from the energy fund and another $52 million — roughly the same amounts as in the current state spending plan. The fund is replenished each year by a surcharge on customers’ gas and energy bills, which raised approximately $344 million for the clean-energy program in the current budget. For typical residential customers, the surcharge runs about $73 a year on their electricity bill and about $89 annually on their gas bill, according to projections last year by the Office of Legislative Service. Businesses, particularly those that use large amounts of energy, pay much more into the Clean Energy Fund. Because the Budget Summary provided by the state Treasurer’s office does not provide detailed specifics, it is unclear if other money is being diverted from the Clean Energy Fund.
While much of the focus in recent days has been on Gov. Chris Christie’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year, several changes were also made this week to the spending plan for the current fiscal year. Those modifications were modest compared to some recent budget adjustments enacted by the Christie administration, suggesting the state budget is now on more solid footing. And they also come as the budget’s surplus fund has been growing in recent years, which is another positive sign. The series of routine spending adjustments and a tweak to the revenue forecast produced a slightly larger overall budget compared to the original version that was adopted in late June 2015. In all, spending is now expected to top out at $34.06 billion by the time the 2016 fiscal year ends on June 30, acting state Treasurer Ford Scudder explained on Tuesday during a briefing with reporters that was held in the State House. That’s nearly $300 million more than the version of the budget that Christie signed into law last June. By comparison, the budget Christie proposed on Tuesday for the fiscal year that begins July 1 totals $34.8 billion. The revenue forecast for the 2016 fiscal year — the amount of money the state is expecting to collect from taxes and other resources — has also been lowered by less than half of 1 percent to $33.8 million.
What it is: A bill (S-985) that would establish an 11-member commission, the Clean Vehicle Task Force, to study ways to promote the use of low- and zero-emission vehicles in New Jersey. The commission’s recommendations would be forwarded to the governor and the Legislature.
What it means: The bill is designed to pave the way for the state to comply with the California low-emission vehicle and California zero-emission vehicle programs, which New Jersey adopted in legislation passed more than a decade ago. Clean-energy advocates view the latter program as crucial to getting more electric vehicles on the state’s roadways.
Why it is important: Air pollution is a major health concern in the state, and vehicles are a main source of the problem. Pollution from vehicles also is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Jersey, which has passed a law setting a goal to reduce global-warming pollution by 80 percent by 2050. Without dealing with pollution from cars, trucks, and other transportation, the state will never achieve that goal, according to environmentalists.
What New Jersey is doing to address the problem: Not enough, according to those concerned with climate change. A study last fall found New Jersey lagging behind other states in several metrics for promoting cleaner-running vehicles with only about 2,500 electric cars in the Garden State. The big problem is the lack of vehicle-charging stations other in an owner’s garage. Charging stations accessible to the public number in the low hundreds, and not many companies offer employees the opportunity to charge their cars while at work.
Why the issue is controversial: Car dealers are required to sell a significant number of low-emission vehicles over the next few years — whether or not consumers want to buy them. If those targets are not achieved, dealers would not be able to sell any new vehicles in the state, even if they are conventional gasoline-fueled cars.
The news that Gov. Chris Christie bowed out of the presidential race is no longer news. By now, it has been dissected a hundred different ways, with the what-ifs, could-haves and might-have-beens getting hashed and rehashed by the media and the electorate alike. Rather than pile on, we’re going to simply reiterate what’s been a common theme in this space: The campaign has represented an enormous distraction from the serious challenges facing New Jersey, and we’re happy the governor is returning, hopefully to fix the state’s many ails.
On behalf of the business community, we hope he puts these areas among top priorities:
• Benefits reform. Easily the sorest subject and certainly one responsible for the state’s plunging credit rating. Christie will have to honestly engage Steve Sweeney — who would work with the governor at his own peril, since he’d be compromising on a key issue to public workers and Democrats — and hammer out a new compromise that gets workers to pay even more into their benefits and work even more years to start collecting.
• Transportation funding. Business owners drive here (and take the train), too. It’s hard to make a case that this is a great place to locate your company when your bridges are in shambles and there’s no money to fix the roads
• Property tax reform. This one is pushing employees out of state and companies out of business. Without substantial work to reduce local tax burdens, New Jersey will remain unable to compete as other states and their zero-sum war of incentives continue to slam our economy.
• Urban renewal. Who would have thought Camden would start looking like the shining city on the hill? Let’s be clear, Camden has miles to go. But the state needs to do more to advance its urban agenda. Atlantic City is a full-fledged disaster. Newark is losing momentum.
• Millionaire’s tax. How do we pay for all of the things we need? The state is going to have to increase income taxes on its top earners. The longer it waits, and the more it tries to borrow, the more expensive that borrowing is going to be.
More drivers say they support increasing the state gas tax than they did two years ago if they’re guaranteed the money will be spent wisely on transportation projects and not diverted for other uses, according to a new AAA poll. Drivers agreed that the state’s roads, bridges and transit system needs work, and gave state highways and local roads a fair to poor ranking in the November AAA poll. Drivers and mass transit riders also said their commutes have gotten worse over the last two years. The gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1988. Still, AAA officials admit it’s a hard sell to increase the gas tax in a state where residents feel like they are taxed to death. In a poll of 600 motorists last November, 63 percent said they’d support an increased gas tax. That support is based on conditions that the money is dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund and safeguards are in place to ensure there is no waste, abuse or diversion of that money. The Transportation Trust Fund is out of money to do any construction work, since all of its revenue is going to pay off past debt. A state report last year said that the fund would be $70 million short of covering its debt payments. The issue may be forced this year since the state used up the last of the borrowing power that the trust fund had to finance the DOT’s fiscal year 2016 capital budget. A gas tax increase remains a hard sell. As recently as Feb. 4, Gov. Chris Christie reiterated his vow not to raise the gas tax. Last year, legislative democrats said they weren’t going to spend political capital to move a gas tax bill only to have it die on Christie’s desk. Other non-gas tax solutions include auditing the DOT, reduce the cost of constriction and cut other areas of the state budget and out it into transportation