Christie: Parts of State House Unsafe, Desperately Need $300M Renovation

Many legislators agree, but some critics say money would be better spent repairing New Jersey’s aging schools

Budget problems have forced New Jersey in recent years to short pension contributions, school-aid payments, and property tax relief for seniors. So it was a surprise for many in the state to hear Gov. Chris Christie announce last week that his administration is now launching a $300 million effort to renovate the State House in Trenton.

Christie didn’t spend too much time explaining how the state will pay for the renovations, and he didn’t take questions from reporters after making the announcement, but according to the state Department of Treasury, his plan is to borrow the money by having the New Jersey Economic Development Authority issue bonds for that purpose.

The State House renovations will be the first in decades on a multilevel section of the building that flanks the signature gold-leaf dome and its rotunda on each side, housing Christie’s own office, his counsel’s, Treasury, Department of State, and press row. As a term-limited governor, Christie said he has the luxury of authorizing long-delayed projects like the State House renovation because he doesn’t have to worry about running for reelection and facing a backlash from upset voters. While lawmakers from both parties praised Christie’s announcement last week, others are criticizing the proposed spending, saying the $300 million should go to more pressing priorities, like repairing schools.

The original part of the State House located near the Delaware River on West State Street in Trenton dates back to 1792. The building has since undergone several major expansions and renovations and was also damaged by a major fire in 1885.

Today, State House visitors are greeted in many areas with peeling paint, and reporters on press row regularly crack uncomfortable jokes about a broken fire escape at one end of the hallway. Employees have also complained for years about their workplaces, and Christie said during last week’s announcement that the part of the building that’s used by the executive branch hasn’t been significantly renovated in 60 years.

When asked about the conditions inside Treasury’s offices, which are located on the first level at the front of the State House, former Treasurer David Rousseau said he once left a water bottle on a window sill in his office on a Friday during the winter. When he came back to work he found the water inside the bottle had frozen.

“So, using elementary school science, the temperature in the room had to be below 32 (degrees) for most of the weekend,” said Rousseau, who served as treasurer under former Gov. Jon Corzine and was also a longtime deputy treasurer.

The planned repairs will improve the safety of the building and make it more accessible for the handicapped, Christie said. Heating and air-conditioning problems that result in wasteful spending will also be addressed. The work will take up to four years to complete, with some work beginning immediately, he said. Christie’s $300 million cost estimate includes a $50 million contingency fund for unforeseen increases.

“To leave the State House in this condition is an embarrassment to the people of the state; it impacts the health and safety of the people who work here and visit here and have business here,” Christie said. “And quite frankly, it’s shameful.”

Employees who work in the part of the building that will be renovated will be relocated beginning in July.

“On the days when we have significant legislative activity, this building can become very crowded depending upon the level of interest of the public and interest groups in being here,” Christie said. “Any type of tragedy that would happen here if I didn’t do anything about this would be both on my watch and on my conscience, and I’m not going to allow either one of those things to happen.”

Created more than 40 years ago, the Economic Development Authority is an independent agency that’s based in Trenton. Though it’s become well known in recent years for issuing lucrative economic-development tax incentives under programs that have beenoverhauled by Christie, a Republican who first took office in early 2010, the EDA is also legally authorized to issue tax-exempt bonds for certain projects, including for buildings that house government operations.

A spokeswoman for the agency referred questions about the financing for the planned State House renovations to Treasury last week, and Treasury spokesman Willem Rijksen said his agency is “currently working with EDA and stakeholders to plan the financing for the project.”

“The renovation and preservation of historical buildings both public and private are generally funded through long-term debt vehicles,” Rijksen said. “The financing of the State House’s restoration will follow suit.”

Unclear right now is exactly how the bonds will be issued, and what source of revenue will be used to back them. New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 that generally bars the state from taking on new debt without voter approval, though it did include several exceptions.

Still, Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a long-serving Republican from Bergen County, said in a statement last week that he’s in favor of the renovation project. While legislative offices have been fully renovated in recent decades, the executive-branch section of the State House has “only deteriorated from the already poor state it was in when I first arrived.”

“Unfortunately, it simply isn’t a safe place to work in or visit, and we’re lucky that we haven’t had a real emergency when the building is in session,” said Cardinale, who’s been a lawmaker since the 1980s.

Sen. Richard J. Codey, a longtime Democratic legislator from Essex County, said he also supports the renovation, adding it “should’ve happened a long time ago.” Codey was first elected as a lawmaker in the 1970s, but he’s also very familiar with the executive offices after serving as governor from late 2004 to early 2006 following the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey.

“Any building, after decades and decades of constant use, requires work, ongoing maintenance, and renovation,” Codey said.

But John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association, voiced concerns about the planned $300 million in spending that have been raised by many on social media following Christie’s announcement. He said Christie’s descriptions of the State House sound very similar to the conditions of many of the public-school buildings in Paterson, one of the state’s poorest cities.

“I truly do not have any sympathy for the condition of the New Jersey State House,” McEntee said. “In fact, I believe that the conditions explained by Christie pale in comparison to the learning conditions that our students and educators endure on a daily basis in cities such as Paterson, Newark, Jersey City, Camden, and Trenton.”