Pending Bills Pit Business Interests Against Environmentalists

Four-bill package enjoys bipartisan support, but conservationists warn it will undercut environmental regulations

To proponents, it is a legislative effort to streamline the bureaucracy and make New Jersey’s economic climate more business-friendly. To foes, it is a move to undermine some of the state’s environmental rules at the urging of special interests.

The four-bill package, which enjoys bipartisan support and emerged, in part, from Gov. Chris Christie’s Red Tape Review, is up for a vote in both houses today. The bills are opposed by most environmental groups, but are backed by business interests. Each of the bills was passed unanimously when voted out of committee.

The legislation primarily addresses the administrative law system that governs how the state adopts rules and regulations stemming from bills adopted by the legislature and issues permits to developers and businesses. The system, long criticized by many for being too long and burdensome, was set up two decades ago to regulate how state laws are implemented and how businesses can appeal unfavorable decisions by cabinet officers.

But to Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, the bills attack environmental protection and the rights of citizens to participate in government decision-making. “These bills give too much power to special interests and take away the public’s right to comment when it comes to rules, regulations, environmental standards and permits.”

Speedier Permitting

One of the bills (A-2853) would require state and local agencies to streamline the permitting process for permits related to business, particularly larger developments that create many jobs. It would set up an individual in state government to act as a point person on major projects, helping developers navigate all the necessary permits needed to move a venture forward. Critics argue that this provision would end up creating an in-house lobbyist for polluters.

But backers defended the measure. When the bill was passed unanimously by the Assembly Budget Committee last month, Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) said, “Businesses devoted to economic development and creating jobs that benefit this state shouldn’t have to run through an obstacle course to get the permits they need. It makes no sense to obstruct economic development, so we need a streamlined system that makes creating jobs as easy as possible.”

The other three bills, voted out of the Assembly Regulatory Government and Oversight Committee in June, deal with trying to streamline the administrative process system, including allowing administrative law court judges, and, potentially, the Attorney General, to decide contested cases where two state agencies may be in conflict.

On Appeal

Under current law, if a developer has a permit that an agency denied, he or she can appeal the decision to an administrative law court judge who hears the case, listens to expert witnesses and issues a ruling. That ruling can be modified, accepted or rejected by the cabinet officer denying the permit. Under one bill (A-2922), the administrative law court or Attorney General makes the final decision in contested cases.

Tittel argued the bill takes away authority from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and may violate federal delegation of various environmental programs in New Jersey given to DEP by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The other bills in the package would allow substantive changes to agency rulemaking upon adoption (A-2720), instead of going through the time-consuming process of reproposing the rule and holding new public hearings on the proposal. Finally, the package includes a measure (A-2721) that would change the expiration of new rules from five years to seven years.