Democrats to Christie: “Hands Off Clean Energy Funds”

Proposed law would prevent the governor from diverting clean energy funds to plug holes in the budget

If some Democratic lawmakers have their way, Gov. Chris Christie will no longer be able to plug budget gaps with money set aside for clean energy programs.

The chairmen of the two environmental committees in the Assembly yesterday said they planned to introduce legislation on Monday that would constitutionally dedicate money collected from utility ratepayers for programs to promote energy efficiency and develop a greater reliance on renewable resources, such as solar and wind power.

The legislation is designed to prevent the diversion of clean energy funds by this and other administrations, a practice that both former Gov. Jon Corzine and Gov. Chris Christie have used. Last year, Christie siphoned off roughly $400 million in funds that were collected from gas and electric customers to balance his state budget. He is suggesting to divert another $52 million in so-called Societal Benefit Charges (SBCs) assessed to ratepayers in the proposed budget for next year, which begins July 1.

The move rankled clean energy advocates and was even contested in state courts, but the administration’s diversion held up to scrutiny. Now the Republican governor has angered lawmakers once again with his decision last week to pull out of a 10-state regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Joining a group of military veterans who are opposed to pulling out of the regional program, dubbed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Somerset) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), vowed to fight to restore New Jersey to the program.

Chivukula said legislation to have the state rejoin the program as well as a bill constitutionally dedicating societal benefits charges to clean energy and other programs previously approved by lawmakers will be introduced Monday.

When asked why the Governor would sign either bill, Chivukula replied, “We don’t know what the governor will do because he’s quite unpredictable.”

Still, the military veterans called the Governor’s decision “ll-timed” and “ill-conceived.” The group, Operation Free, said they are now raising funds to launch a radio and mailing campaign aimed at urging the governor to reconsider his decision, said former U.S. Army Captain Michael Breen, who is also vice president of the Truman National Security Project. “Climate change is an accelerant of instability,” said Breen, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“By staying with RGGI, we can work toward our energy independence,” added Lt. General Norman Seip, a longtime fighter pilot.

McKeon agreed. “This is a place to take a stand,” said the chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.

Besides diverting money from the SBC, Christie last year also siphoned off $65 million from RGGI to balance the budget. He has not taken any money from the program in next year’s budget.