Christie’s Spending-Plan Priorities Have ‘Green’ Community Seeing Red

Governor pays little attention to environmental issues while again tapping into clean-energy fund to help balance budget

For environmentalists and clean-energy advocates, what Gov. Chris Christie omitted from his annual budget message yesterday was probably as important as what he said.

There was no mention of developing a stable source of funding to preserve open space; there were scant details on how the administration plans to proceed in rebuilding the Jersey Shore; and there was not a word about what the state will do to combat climate change, only four months after the worst storm in 100 years devastated wide sections of the state’s coast.

Indeed, Christie’s proposed budget once again raids a ratepayer-financed fund of $152 million used to promote energy efficiency and cleaner ways of producing electricity, steps clean-energy advocates say are vital to achieving the state’s aggressive goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Not that the move was unexpected. Since taking office, Christie already has tapped New Jersey’s clean-energy funds for more than $680 million, steps approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, to plug holes in the state budget.

Some members are unhappy with that legacy.

“Shame on the Governor,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, one of the few lawmakers who has been critical of the move. “He’s turned a program to create energy efficiency into a new tax.’’

Asked what impact the cuts would have on the state’s clean-energy program, BPU President Bob Hanna said the agency, which oversees the initiative, will analyze the effect as part of its examination of the overall clean-energy program for the next several years, a process that will begin in April.

The governor’s lack of talk about open-space funding—a commitment he made to one environmental group during his initial gubernatorial campaign, in a pledge that helped win their endorsement—also is hardly surprising given the state’s budget problems.

Indeed, the administration again tapped more than $1 billion in state funds earmarked for other purposes, like the clean-energy fund, to help balance the budget for fiscal year 2014, including approximately $27 million in funds to promote recycling, proper closure of garbage dumps, and oversight of nuclear power plants from the proposed budget of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Nevertheless, the omission of open-space funding left environmental and some lawmakers disappointed, particularly since the state is running out of money to protect open spaces and preserve farmland. They have been pressing to create a more stable source of funding for the effort, instead of the more expensive bond issues relied upon in the past.

“The governor said he was going to do it in 2009 and we’re still waiting,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which backed Christie in his initial run but now is at odds with most of his policies. “At least the governor is consistent in being bad for both the environment and energy.’’

“Very much disappointed,’’ agreed Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), who is one of the legislators pushing for a stable source of funding for open space, referring to Christie’s failure to address the issue. McKeon’s bill would dedicate $200 million in sales-tax revenue for open space and farmland preservation, a measure that has won support of the Keep It Green coalition, which is comprised of many of the state’s leading conservation groups.

Two other bills to fund the cause are moving through the Legislature, but have yet to be commented on by the administration, despite pleas by Smith to give the Legislature some direction. One would enact a water tax that would cost typical residential customers between $32 and $40 more annually on their utility bills; the other is a $400 million bond issue for the effort.

None of those proposals are particularly palatable for an incumbent running for re-election, especially one who has made the mantra “no new taxes” part of his core political philosophy.

Still, even the Keep It Green coalition, an organization not typically one to take issue with lawmakers or administrations, expressed its frustration, calling for action from both.

“This issue takes on an even greater urgency in light of the significant needs to provide natural green buffers along the coast and inland waterways to help prevent future flood and storm damage for strategic buyouts of properties of areas suffering from repeated floods,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the coalition, in a statement released after the speech.

Asked why Christie failed to address these issues in his budget message, Smith said the administration has switched into campaign mode for this fall’s gubernatorial election.

In his speech, Christie talked far less about the impact of Sandy than he has in recent weeks. The only new initiative he announced was a $40 million contingency fund, which will be used to cover expenses not reimbursed by the federal government.

“This will ensure that we can move ahead with maximum speed, and that those things that fall through the cracks do not bankrupt families, businesses, or local governments,’’ Christie said in his speech.

Some were skeptical, given the outlines of the proposed state budget.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, noted the $40 million contingency fund is much smaller than the $152 million diverted from the clean-energy fund, which would have helped families and businesses buy cost-saving energy efficiency appliances such as refrigerators and furnaces to get their families and businesses back on their feet.