Democratic Lawmakers Want NJ Back In Regional Clean-Air Initiatives

Proposed constitutional amendments would let voters decide if state should participate in multistate antipollution programs

Jon Bramnick (R-Union)
The Christie administration is shying away from multistate agreements to curb air pollution, but not Democratic legislators.

In bills up for a vote tomorrow, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee will consider legislation to require the state to rejoin a regional effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change, as well as a measure that would make it more difficult for the state to pull out of another multistate plan to promote the development of electric cars and zero-emission vehicles.

Both bills would put the issues directly to the voters as constitutional amendments on next year’s ballot, circumventing vetoes that might be orchestrated by Gov. Chris Christie.

The move by the panel comes at a time when the Christie administration has declined to join efforts by a combination of states to reduce pollution on several fronts. But in a state long burdened with some of the worst air pollution problems in the nation, the administration’s strategy is causing increasing concern among environmentalists, health advocates, and legislators.

The coordinated efforts by the states include forcing power plants to belch out fewer emissions that contribute to climate change; requiring vehicles — one of the largest sources of pollution causing both smog and global warming — to run cleaner; and petitioning the federal government to curb pollution from power plants located to the south and west of Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

Gov. Chris Christie, widely viewed as a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2016, has either pulled New Jersey out of the programs, or has failed to join them or endorse their cause.

To his critics, the calculation is putting the governor’s national ambitions ahead of what is good for New Jersey, a state that has never achieved the federal health-quality standard for ground-level ozone — more commonly known as smog.

“It says that the environment in New Jersey, especially dealing with climate change and clean-car programs, is more important to the Legislature than the Governor’s national agenda,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Probably the two most controversial of the measures up before the Senate committee tomorrow deal with efforts to force New Jersey to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate effort to reduce pollution in the Northeast that contributes to global climate change.

They both ask voters to approve constitutional amendments dealing with the issue. One (SCR-146) would dedicate any funds generated from rejoining RGGI to the state’s clean energy programs; the other (SCR-162) would require the state to participate in the RGGI program.

Christie withdrew from the RGGI program in 2011, saying it was ineffective and constituted a tax on utility ratepayers. At the same time, he also has diverted tens of millions of dollars in funds raised from the program, to plug a hole in the state budget.

By trying to push through constitutional amendments, the Legislature would bypass Christie and any threat of vetoes. If the proposals clear the lame-duck session and are then passed by a majority in the next session, they would appear on the fall ballot

Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) opposes that course.

“This approach shows Democrats want to avoid discussing the commonsense approach used by Gov. Christie in reaching bipartisan agreements,’’ Bramnick said. “Amending the constitution should be rare. These legislative proposals take us down a dangerous path.’’

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said there has been no change on the part of the administration regarding RGGI.

Meanwhile, the Senate committee is also poised to pass a bill that would prevent the DEP Commissioner from taking New Jersey out of a multistate clean-car program aimed at developing initiatives for electric cars and zero-emission vehicles.

The bill is in response to a conditional veto by the governor to a measure that would have set up a clean-car task force, but included a provision allowing the commissioner to opt out of the program.

“It’s a huge deal,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Gov. Christie to put New Jersey’s clean car program on hold.’’