Governor Blocks Bill to End State Diversions of Environmental Settlements

Legislators also look to put constitutional amendment on November ballot that would prevent settlements from being used for other purposes

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex)
Gov. Chris Christie yesterday vetoed a bill that would have stopped the administration from diverting half of the money from environmental settlements to plug holes in the state budget.

Earlier in the day, legislators debated but approved a measure (SCR-163) that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November to dedicate all such money to be used for environmental purposes. The proposal is expected to be acted on in early June by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, according to its chairman.

The proposal is largely driven by recent settlements and proposed agreements by the state that would allow some money from the recovery of environmental damages to be sidetracked to the general fund.

Both the bill (A-4281) vetoed by Christie and the proposed constitutional amendment were largely prompted by a controversial settlement reached by the administration to settle a natural-resources damage claim against Exxon Mobil, stemming from pollution at refineries the company once operated in Linden and Bayonne.

In a draft agreement reached with the state, Exxon Mobil agreed to pay $225 million to settle the suit still pending before a court instead of the $8.9 billion lawyers for New Jersey had originally sought.

But like other settlements in environmental-recovery cases, not all of the money will go to cleaning up of those sites or restoration of natural resources. In a case of contamination of the Passaic River by dioxin, $140 million of the settlement was diverted to the general fund.

In the bill vetoed by the Governor, it would have mandated one-half of environmental damage claims be targeted to cleanups and restoration of those sites.

In his veto message, Christie said the administration supports that goal — although he added caveats.

“The protection and preservation of the ecological wonders of which New Jersey is proud have always been critical considerations when weighing where New Jersey’s limited budget dollars should be delivered, but there always challenging decisions that must be made when balancing a complex state budget,’’ Christie said.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill, said he was disappointed, but not surprised the governor had [link:|vetoed the measure, having done so in the past.

[related]The resolution discussed yesterday before the Senate committee would get around that problem by putting the measure directly before voters. The governor would not have an opportunity to veto the proposed constitutional amendment — a tactic used by lawmakers last fall to put an open-space ballot question before voters, which won wide support despite opposition from the administration over its diversion of funds from other environmental programs.

“It’s really important,’’ said Debbie Mans, NY/NJ Baykeeper, of the latest constitutional amendment, especially given the recent diversion of settlements of money from environmental-recovery suits to help balance the state budget.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the resolution and chairman of the committee, agreed. “Under the current situation, an awful lot of money will be used that has nothing to do with environmental restoration,’’ he said.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said the Christie administration has used such funds from environmental programs to fix budget problems. “The consistent raids reflect poorly on the state and the Legislature,’’ he said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, also objected to the diversion of funds. “Quite frankly, budgets should not be backed on communities affected by pollution,’’ he said.

The resolution was held by the committee to consider various amendments, including removing some provisions environmentalists had questioned, including repaying bond payments from previous environmental issues.