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.
A proposal to put a question on November’s ballot asking New Jersey voters to approve expanding casino gambling to the northern part of the state took another step forward Monday, though some critics said the plan is missing key details. The state Assembly’s judiciary committee voted 6-2 to approve the resolution, which would ask voters whether to amend the state constitution to allow two casinos in north Jersey. Currently, the constitution allows casino gambling only in Atlantic City, where in recent years four casinos have closed and tax revenue from casinos has been cut in half amid increasing competition from neighboring states. The state Senate budget committee approved the proposal last month. Now, both the full Senate and Assembly will consider the proposal. Three-fifths of each chamber need to approve it for it to reach the Nov. 8 ballot. But some opponents of the plan said voters should have more information before deciding, including how much the tax rate for the casinos will be. That, they say, will help estimate how much money will be sent to help redevelopment in Atlantic City
Under the proposal, the Jersey Shore resort town would receive up to $200 million annually in taxes from the new casinos to help offset the losses it is likely to incur from north Jersey gambling. Sponsors have said the tax rate, as well as where the casinos will be located, will be decided in later legislation. But Assemblyman A. Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) said voters deserve to know now. “Wouldn’t you want to know how much money is coming back to the state?” Brown asked Monday. “If you were running a business, before you opened another franchise and competed against yourself, these are some very basic questions that you would want to know.” Casinos in Atlantic City pay a tax rate of about 9.25 percent. Sponsors have said the new casinos might pay more. Brown has warned the plan would “kill Atlantic City,” causing more casinos there to close. Proponents have said the new casinos will bring more jobs and revenue to the state, keep New Jersey competitive in the northeast gaming market, and give Atlantic City more funds to reinvent itself.
The new casinos’ locations have not been specified, either — though the measure says they must be in two different counties, at least 72 miles from Atlantic City. That includes New Brunswick, but excludes race tracks in Oceanport and Freehold and large Middlesex County towns like Edison and Woodbridge. But at least two casinos have been proposed: one at Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford and another in Jersey City. There is now a 20-day waiting period before the proposal can be heard in the Senate and Assembly.
A bill to restore hundreds of millions of dollars paid by utilities to local governments in New Jersey for property tax relief advanced through a state legislative committee on Monday. The legislation, (A302), would restore $331 million in cuts to energy tax receipts and Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Aid over five years. But there’s a catch: the money must be used to offset local tax levies. The energy tax was originally intended for local towns. But New Jersey governors, starting with Jon Corzine, diverted the money to the state treasury to balance the budget. Local officials raised the issue with state lawmakers several years ago, asking them to return the badly needed funds. Similar bills were introduced in 2013 and 2014. The 2013 version passed the full state Assembly by an overwhelming majority but died in the state Senate.
The new bill is also sponsored by Republican and Democratic Assembly members. The state would restore the $331 million over five years, ending in 2021, when the municipalities would be returned to the amount they’d received in 2008. Lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly have said they’re going to push property tax relief in the new session, which began last month. State data released Friday showed the average statewide property tax bill rose from $8,161 in 2014 to $8,353 in 2015. Jon Moran, a legislative analyst with the League of Municipalities, said “the cumulative impact of years of underfunding have left many municipalities with serious needs and burdensome taxes.” He told the committee the organization supports the “vast majority” of the bill, but not the requirement the funds offset reductions in municipal levies. Local officials, he said, have few alternatives to generate revenue outside of the property tax levy. They have “demonstrated their dedication to limiting local property tax increases,” but fear the bill’s mandate will restrict their ability to address their communities’ respective needs. Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) argued that money belongs to the taxpayers, not municipalities. “At the end of the day, the money is not derived from town A or city B. It’s derived from the people of those communities,” he said. “So, the way we look at it, we are simply returning that money back to the people who actually put the money in the pot in the first place.”