In the eight months that Christie has focused most of his time on his Republican presidential campaign, the problems he faces in New Jersey remain. Some — like the financial mess in Atlantic City — have only gotten worse. After he suspended his campaign Wednesday following a disappointing sixth-place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday, here’s a look at some of the issues that await him back home:
THE PENSION DEBATE
A simmering fight over public pensions continues with problems stemming from years of neglect from Democratic and Republican administrations who failed to pay into the system. Christie has backed a reform plan put forward by a commission he appointed, but Democrats instead are moving ahead with a potential ballot question to enshrine quarterly pension payments in the state constitution.
Christie has called for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax — the nation’s second lowest — but says it’s unacceptable unless paired with other tax cuts. Democrats argue there’s no way around raising the tax to shore up the fund, which is on track to go broke by July. Whether he cuts a deal on raising the gas tax could depend on if he plans to run for president again, political experts say. Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto says he hopes Christie’s return results in bipartisan agreements on the issues.
WHAT HE’S MISSED
Since Christie has been gone, Republicans lost seats in the Assembly in November’s election and his approval ratings have plummeted. He returned last month to work with legislative leaders on ending Atlantic City’s monopoly on casino gambling in return for aid to the struggling resort. Christie helped to seal a deal for a referendum to let voters decide, although that bill is still moving through the Legislature.
The first steps to building a back-up power system to keep sections of NJ Transit’s busiest rail lines running, after a blackout or storm knocks out electricity, were taken by NJ Transit’s board Wednesday (Feb 10). Board members approved a $17 million contract with Jacobs Engineering Group of Morristown to design and do preliminary engineering for what could be the nation’s first mass transit micro power grid. The system, known as NJ Transitgrid, would provide limited rail service even during a blackout of commercial power. If a blackout occurred, NJ Transit would be able to operate 40 to 50 percent of their trains. NJ Transitgrid would use a natural gas fired power plant in Kearny to generate electricity to run trains on core parts of the Northeast Corridor up to New Brunswick and all of Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. It would power signals on the Morris and Essex and Main Line up to Newark Penn Station and Secaucus. NJ Transitgrid would also power key facilities such as the Rail Operations Center, Meadowlands Maintenance Complex and some bus facilities. NJ Transitgrid will not replace the problem-plagued overhead wires on the Northeast Corridor which causes delays when it fails. The concept resulted after Hurricane Sandy knocked out electric power, which sidelined NJ Transit rail lines for about a week after the Oct. 2012 storm. NJ Transitgrid is one of several resiliency projects to receive federal funding after Sandy. The Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Department of Energy allocated $409 million for NJ Transitgrid, which will require $168 million in state funding to match it. Amtrak also will pay into the program. In addition to building a power plant, NJ Transitgrid would rebuild an Amtrak substation, install solar panels to power certain stations and bus facilities. Design and engineering is scheduled to take 15 months. NJ Transitgrid is expected to be constructed by 2021.
With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision late Tuesday to temporarily block implementation of the Clean Power Plan, New Jersey can hold off imposing some of the most stringent limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants in this part of the country. The requirement is one of the reasons the Christie administration joined 28 other states in seeking to block the rule adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The state is also upset with the plan because it fails to give New Jersey credit for emission reductions it already has achieved. For backers of the plan, however, the court’s stay just allows the Christie administration to delay taking steps to address climate change, even though the state has established its own aggressive targets to reduce those emissions. Without implementing the Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s efforts to deal with climate change, New Jersey will never reach the goals of the Global Warming Act, according to proponents. The state law, passed during the Corzine administration, aims to reduce emissions contributing to global warming in New Jersey by 80 percent by 2050. In issuing a stay, the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case brought by the states, which argued that the plan represented an unlawful extension of the federal agency’s authority. PSEG Power, the state’s largest power producer, was the one energy company that supported the rule, although it has not been part of the legal debate. The delay is especially surprising to environmentalists who noted that the Supreme Court ruled in a prior case that the EPA had the authority to reduce carbon emissions.
Now that Gov. Chris Christie has ended his bid for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination, all eyes in Trenton are focusing on what he plans to do about New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is deep in debt and on course to run of money in June. To some, Christie, a second-term Republican, offered a hint last week during a campaign event in New Hampshire that his position on the gas tax has now hardened. But the Democratic legislative leaders say they’re still ready to negotiate a solution with him, brushing aside any of the rhetoric from the campaign. With Christie scheduled to put forward a new state budget on February 16, the status of the transportation fund was a major topic in a notice that Moody’s Investors Service, one of the major Wall Street credit-rating agencies, recently sent out to investors. The transportation-funding issue was also discussed by municipal officials, who rely on money from the Transportation Trust Fund to help maintain local roads. Without the state funding, they say, the burden will fall to homeowners who are already paying the highest average property-tax in the nation. To many, the likely solution to the problem is an increase of the state’s 14.5-cent fuel tax, which includes a 10.5-cent per-gallon levy on gasoline and a 4-cent tax on gross petroleum products that is passed along to motorists paying at the pump. For months, Christie has said a gas-tax increase is “on the table.” But when he was pressed at a town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire by someone who said he was forced to leave New Jersey due to high taxes Christie stated, “I’m not going to increase the gas tax while you’re sitting here and complaining to me about every other tax being too high.”
Despite a split in the environmental community, a long-awaited bill to set up a funding plan for open-space and farmland preservation cleared a legislative committee yesterday. The legislation, unanimously approved by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, revives a measure pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year. An identical bill already has been moving forward in the Senate, a step lawmakers hope will finally free up money to pay to preserve the state’s fast-dwindling open space and farmland under a ballot question overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2014. The bill (A-780) is controversial because it provides less money than had been allocated to the program in past years, resulting in some groups asserting that it shortchanges efforts to buy up flood-prone properties in New Jersey and target money to urban areas.
Nevertheless, the legislation is strongly backed by a broad coalition of conservation organizations, agricultural officials, and historic-preservation advocates who have seen funding dry up in the past few years. In the past, largely relying on bond issues approved by voters, as much as $200 million a year was spent on preservation programs. In approving the ballot question, however, much less money — about $80 million in next year’s state fiscal budget plus another $66 million in yet to be allocated funds from corporate business taxes — is available for the effort. The ballot question drew some opposition, in part because it would divert some corporate business taxes that had been targeted to develop brownfields, contaminated industrial tracts that had have lain fallow, and clean up underground storage tanks.
Conceding that the bill does not allocate any money from the corporate taxes to the Blue Acres program, Ed Potosnak noted there is still $11 million in unspent money for the purpose from a 2009 bond issue as well as another $33 million in unallocated money for that use. Noting the dispute over where the money is proposed to be spent, Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the committee, urged both sides to suggest amendments to the sponsor before the bill reaches the full Assembly. “We’re moving in a direction that will benefit all,’’ she said. Others agreed. Both farmland and historic-preservation advocates noted funds for those programs have exhausted all their financing options. Since 2013, there has not been any approval for funds for farmland preservation, leaving the four largest counties with agricultural-protection programs no money to preserve the land, according to Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau. Under the bill, the bulk of the money would go to the state’s Green Acres 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. Both the Assembly and Senate bills await action by the respective budget committees.