Fine print: Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Revisited

If supporters can pass Senate resolution, RGGI membership could go on November ballot

How so: In the latest bid to have New Jersey once again participate in a 10-state initiative to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a prominent Democrat legislator, Sen. Bob Smith, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, has introduced a resolution (SCR-146) that would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment to require the state to rejoin the program and to dedicate any money from the effort to certain clean energy and greenhouse-gas reduction programs.

What RGGI hoped to do: The effort by the 10 states was viewed as establishing a model for a nationwide program to deal with global climate change, a vision that has yet to be achieved. Critics say the program has failed to achieve the envisioned reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, a matter of heated dispute between advocates and proponents.

Why the issue is so contentious: In May of 2011, Gov. Chris Christie pulled New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cooperative effort by states in the Northeast to reduce pollution that contributes to global climate change. In announcing the decision, Christie said the program was not effective and simply imposed a new tax on utility customers.

Why some are unhappy: Many environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers fear that pulling out of the program will jeopardize New Jersey’s efforts to sharply curtail greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, RGGI imposed a new tax on utilities that failed to curb their emissions, financing a fund to be used by the states for clean-energy projects and reduce energy consumption.

What’s happened so far: The Democratic-controlled Legislature has on two occasions passed bills requiring New Jersey to rejoin RGGI. Christie vetoed both, thwarting the effort. He called the program an unnecessary tax that raises energy bills for consumers who pay some of the highest electric costs in the nation.

Why this time might be different: Under Senate Concurrent Resolution SCR-146, if both houses approve the measure, it automatically makes it way onto the November ballot, leaving the issue to be decided by voters in a gubernatorial election year. The governor cannot veto the resolution.

What lies ahead: If the resolution makes its way onto the November ballot, Democrats likely will argue that the state is losing money to promote clean energy and energy efficiency programs, which have been repeated raided by both the Legislature and Christie administration to plug holes in the state budget. At the same time, RGGI has aroused significant opposition from conservatives, who view it as a huge government overreach and an unnecessary cost to ratepayers.