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Assembly Committee Pulls Plug on DEP Economic Development Office

Committee raise concerns about duplication of services and diversion of funds.

When Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin appeared before the Assembly Budget Committee last month, he was on the receiving end of a scolding from its chairman for creating another level of government by establishing a new office of economic growth and green energy.

Denying it was duplicative of other state economic development programs, Martin called the new office crucial to New Jersey’s efforts to attract offshore wind developers. It would coordinate permitting and other issues among various state and federal agencies.

Not anymore. The draft budget proposed by Democratic leaders would eliminate funding for the office, saving $1.26 million, a fraction of the DEP’s overall $330 million budget. All told, the agency’s budget has fallen by $16.7 million from the budget introduced by Gov. Chris Christie in March. The drop-off is largely due to the fact that the administration lowered its projections of revenue coming from the corporate business tax. A portion of the tax is dedicated to specific environmental programs, such as cleaning up hazardous waste sites and leaking underground storage tanks.

No Confidence

Asked why the budget eliminated the economic development and green energy office, Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, the chairman of the budget panel, said duplication was partly the motivation behind the decision. He added, however, that after talking "with our friends in the environmental" community, they had no confidence that funds allocated to the office would be spent on clean energy programs.

In the past year, the administration has diverted nearly a half-billion dollars in clean energy funds to help plug budget gaps, although the proposed budget for the next fiscal year relies on that strategy far less than the current spending plan. Clean energy advocates sought to block the diversion, with one group unsuccessfully trying to overturn the decision in litigation.

This year, there were not many complaints from environmentalists over killing the DEP economic development office.

"We had an objection to having an office of economic development in DEP in the first place," said Dena Mottola Jabrosky, executive director of Environment New Jersey. "That’s not part of its core mission. They need to be focusing on their core mission."

Dave Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said the elimination of the office will be far less devastating to the state’s renewable energy program than the Governor’s budget cuts and policy changes.

In the past month, Christie has pulled New Jersey out of a regional program among 10 northeastern states whose goal is to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Yesterday, the Senate approved a pair of measures aimed at keeping New Jersey in the program despite the Governor’s action. The administration also has recommended scaling back some of the state’s goals to promote more use of solar power and other renewable energy sources.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlsex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee and a key sponsor of the law promoting offshore wind, said he had no clue the office of green energy had been eliminated, having been more preoccupied with restoring funds to the New Jersey Highlands, a cause he also has long advocated.

Business lobbyists said the office is part of an effort by the administration to improve New Jersey’s business climate.

"As we are moving to new technologies, it is helpful for the business community to have someone at DEP who can shepherd you through the process," said Sarah Bluhm, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

Bob Marshall, a member of the New Jersey Energy Coalition, agreed. "From what I heard, the office was doing a good job in outreach, accessibility and visibility," he said of the office and its head, Michele Siekerka, an assistant commissioner at DEP. "Having someone champion that at the assistant commissioner level is very important."

Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for DEP, declined detailed comment on the move, saying the agency was still assessing what the legislature is proposing.

The Christie administration and legislature have enacted a series of laws and programs aimed at attracting offshore wind developers to build wind turbines in the state’s coastal waters. Eleven developers have expressed interest in leasing tracts of water off the coast of New Jersey. In addition, the state is scheduled to begin stakeholder hearings later this summer on ways to help the offshore wind developers attract financing from Wall Street.

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