Open-Space Preservation Funding Gets Put on Legislative Fast Track 01/27/2016

Hoping to free up funds sooner rather than later, a legislative committee yesterday quickly revived a bill to provide money to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures. In a unanimous vote, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved legislation to allocate approximately $146 million over the next two years from corporate business taxes to enable towns, counties, and others to acquire and protect open spaces and agricultural land. An identical bill had been pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie last week, along with dozens of other measures passed on the final day of the lame-duck legislative session earlier this month. Even though money for the open-space programs is being collected, it cannot be distributed until implementing legislation is signed into law, which gives urgency to resolving the issue as quickly as possible.

“Hopefully, we get it on the governor’s desk soon,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the bill (S-969) and the previous measure in the lame-duck session. “This time we are going to get it done.’’ Conservation groups and others echoed those concerns, saying it is important to start releasing the funds for the programs, some of which have run out of money. The bill implements a constitutional amendment dedicating a portion of corporate business taxes to open space, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2014. “Uncertainty about the status of funding will persist until a compromise solution is reached between the Legislature and the Christie administration,’’ said Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. “The urgency to release these voter-dedicated funds increases with each passing day,’’ agreed Ed Potosnak, chair of New Jersey Keep It Green, a coalition of more than a hundred conservation, historic-preservation, and park advocates who had lobbied to put the constitutional amendment to voters.

Christie opposed the ballot question, even though he campaigned during his initial run for governor vowing to create a stable, long-term fund for open-space programs. Christie’s did not spell out a specific reason why he vetoed the most recent open-space bill, but his press office blamed it on the more than 100 bills approved by lawmakers on the last day of the previous legislative session. If the bill wins approval, it would establish general parameters where the money could be spent during the next four years. Smith called the legislation the most important environmental bill in the current session. He noted $66 million has yet to be allocated from taxes collected in the current fiscal year, which ends July 1, and another $80 million should be available in the next budget. The bulk of the money would go for the state’s popular Green Acres program (61 percent), which funds open-space acquisition and park development, including in urban areas. More money is allocated for urban communities than in the past, Potosnak, noted. Thirty-one percent would be used for farmland preservation projects and 5 percent set aside for historic preservation.

With Public Waterfront Access Restored, DEP Needs to Work Out the Details 01/27/2016

The state has regained the authority to require public access to beaches and waterfront areas, but where and for what purpose remains subject to considerable debate. It is an issue high on legislative priorities in the wake of a state appeals court that briefly quashed the Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to mandate access through its coastal protection and waterfront permits. That was quickly rectified in a bipartisan bill that sailed through the lame-duck Legislature earlier this month. But it left unanswered the tougher question of how extensive that access should be. The legislation signed into law last week essentially restores rules put in place by the DEP in 2012 governing beach and waterfront access. But those regulations were opposed by conservationists — so much so that it led to the court challenge that wound up being decided by the appellate panel. The details of how that program should work were left to the new legislative session. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the influential chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, quickly took up the issue at the first meeting of the New Year.

Using a strategy he adopted to draw up proposals to revamp some of the state’s energy policies, Smith is convening a special stakeholders group to come back to the committee in 90 days with recommendations to lawmakers on what they should do. The composition of the group is yet to be determined, but Smith selected four chairpersons to try and forge a consensus — two from the business community and two from conservation groups. Environmentalist dislike the current regulatory scheme because they say it reduces access to beach and waterfront areas, but business interests fear the process may end up giving the public access to areas that should be restricted because of concerns dealing with New Jersey’s sensitive infrastructure, such as oil refineries and tank farms. Forging a consensus on those issues is likely to be challenging, both sides agree.

For instance, Mike Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and one of the four chairman tapped by Smith, noted he pushed for an amendment in the recent bill that allowed public access to the waterfront where it “is feasible and appropriate’’ to address security concerns. On the other hand, Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society and another co-chairman of the stakeholder group, said there are still significant parts of the coast and tidal areas where public access is limited. “We want them to be opened up in a meaningful way,’’ he said, talking about an area that would range from the Hudson River in the north, all the way down the coast to Delaware Bay and up the Delaware River. Some skeptics already have suggested to Smith it is unlikely the group will come up with consensus recommendations. Smith remained optimistic, but urged the members to come up with majority and minority reports in areas in which an accord could not be reached.

Christie announces state takeover of Atlantic City finances 01/27/2016

Avoiding possible bankruptcy and a hostile state takeover of a once-glittering gambling resort town, top New Jersey political leaders and the Atlantic City mayor Tuesday announced a five-year compact to repair the city’s finances. Lawmakers said the arrangement stops short of the kind of intervention the Democratic state Senate president was seeking and the bankruptcy Mayor Don Guardian threatened to pull the city out of financial crisis. “Last Thursday, I placed a telephone call to the mayor, and I told him my view was the city needed help, and I wanted to help the city and we needed to work together,” Gov. Chris Christie said at a Statehouse news conference Tuesday afternoon, flanked by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Guardian.

Under the agreement, the state would take expanded responsibility and decision-making authority over Atlantic City’s finances, including the power to restructure municipal debt, alter or terminate municipal contracts and collective bargaining agreements, strike shared service agreements with the county, and sell or lease city-owned services, Christie said. The state also would have assumed these functions under Sweeney’s takeover bill (S970) but Guardian classified the new plan as cooperation and not a takeover. Ultimately, whether it’s a takeover depends on nuances of the legislation, said Mark Pfeiffer, a former deputy director with the state Division of Local Government Services. “The devil in this case is in the details,” said Pfeiffer, an assistant director at Rutgers’ Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

Lawmakers will swiftly develop and pass legislation in February, Christie said. The state’s expanded role will expire within five years. “The city’s finances are now the greatest threat to its well-being,” the governor said, adding that a bankruptcy is “clearly not my preference.” But previous efforts haven’t included the comprehensive solutions necessary to address the city’s complex financial straits, he said. Atlantic City holds about $240 million in debt and owes another $160 million in tax appeals to Borgata Hotel Casino alone. Last week, Standard and Poor’s described those financial commitments as “unsustainable in the long term.” Those remarks accompanied a “super-downgrade” of Atlantic City’s credit rating, which was already in junk bond territory, by four notches. S&P suggested that without intervention, the city would default within six months.

The mayor was scheduled to hold an emergency city council meeting Tuesday night in preparation for asking the state’s permission to file for bankruptcy. Guardian said it would be premature to speculate what some of the cost-cutting measure for Atlantic City might be, such as selling the $100 million water utility, or seeking givebacks from labor contracts. Atlantic City, long the East Coast’s gambling destination, has faced growing competition from neighboring states. In 2014, four of the city’s 12 casinos closed, taking a bite out of the city’s tax revenue and leaving 10,000 casino workers unemployed. Lawmakers last year introduced a rescue aid package, which Christie twice rejected, even after the Legislature agreed to his recommended changes. That veto leaves a $33.5 million gap in the city’s municipal budget, and officials have said the city could run out of cash by April.

Obama Proposal Could Cut Methane Emissions But Boost Energy Costs 01/25/2016

The Obama administration is proposing new rules to curb methane emissions, a potent form of greenhouse-gas emissions, a step that may help deal with climate change but could hamper the fast-growing natural-gas sector. The proposal, made public on Friday by the U.S. Department of Interior, would mostly affect oil and gas drilling on public lands. But it also would require the industry to do a better job of monitoring leaks in pipelines delivering the fuel to customers. Both industry lobbyists and environmental groups said the proposal could raise energy costs, an outcome with implications in New Jersey, which has become increasingly reliant on natural gas not only to heat homes during the winter, but also to produce much of the electricity used here.

“The boom in natural-gas production has not only kept energy costs low, but has also brought new life to America’s manufacturing sector,’’ said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, an industry trade group. “(The Department of Interior’s) regulation threatens this progress by hindering production, raising energy costs, and killing jobs.’’ But the spurt of growth of new natural-gas plants in New Jersey and an expansion of pipelines from newly exploited deposits of the fuel in neighboring states has generated heated controversy. Many of the pipeline proposals traverse public land previously set aside with taxpayers’ dollars, or go through relatively affluent suburbs. “We hope this rule moves forward because it will help regulate methane leaks from fracking, while making it costlier for the gas and oil industry to operate and propose pipelines in our state,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He noted there are at least 15 pipelines that have either been proposed or approved in the state.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, which proposed the rule, it would cost the industry $126 million to $161 million a year. Under the old rules, only new pipelines were subject to increased monitoring for leaks, according to Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “It’s a huge loophole. Existing pipelines are a big source of methane,’’ he said. In proposing the new rule, DOI estimated that between 2009 and 2014 enough natural gas was lost through venting, flaring, and leaks into the atmosphere to power more than 5 million homes for a year. In addition, the Government Accountability Office said as much as $23 million annually in revenue is lost to the federal government and states. New technology can reduce the waste, federal officials said. “By asking operators to take simple, common-sense actions to reduce waste — like swapping out old equipment and checking for leaks — we expect to cut this waste almost in half,’’ said Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management. But Pyle said companies have the incentive to capture methane as a valuable commodity. The rules would be phased in over several years to allow operators to make the transition more cost efficiently, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

Christie kills legislation meant to guarantee $80M for open-space funding 01/20/2016

On Tuesday, January 19, Gov. Chris Christie pocket vetoed a bill which would have allowed $80 million to go towards protecting open space and farmland, as well as to preserve historic structures. The bill originally passed unanimously in the Senate with bipartisan support in the Assembly. Bills like this are usually a routine when it comes to NJ annual funding, so Christie’s veto is peculiar and resulted in uncertainty as to why he chose to veto the bill and what the funds would be used for. The veto could leave municipalities, counties and other organizations that hoped for funding, hostage to the changes of the state’s budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Neither Christie nor his spokesperson, Joelle Farrell, has elaborated on exactly why the bill was killed, however, Farrell implied that it was due to too many measures that were pushed through at the end of the prior legislative year. He stated that passing more than 100 bills in a scrambled way is not an effective approach in conducting public business. The Open- Space Bill was one of more than 10 environmental measures that were pocket vetoed on Jan. 19. Speculation emerged as to how Christie will spend the $80 million; in the current fiscal year, the governor and Legislature used $20 million of the open-space fund to pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks. NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of more than 180 park and conservation groups, portrayed their disappointment with the veto; however, they vowed to work with the governor and legislature to help distribute the voter-approved funds. Next month, Gov. Christie will announce his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, so the questions of where the $80 million will go will be answered.