$300M State House Renovation Gets Go-Ahead Amid Controversy Over Price

Commission clears way for makeover of decrepit building but some legislators, gubernatorial candidates included, balk at the cost

Credit: NJ Department of Treasury
State House cornice showing corrosion and metal strapping
A controversial plan to renovate the New Jersey State House won approval yesterday from a panel of legislative and executive-branch officials even as the $300 million project continues to draw criticism, including on the gubernatorial campaign trail.

The vote by the eight-member State Capitol Joint Management Commission seemingly clears the way for the renovation work, as well as a complicated financing plan and leasing agreement that will see the state Economic Development Authority issue bonds to pay for the project.

Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican now in his final year in office, has been leading the renovation effort, calling the current conditions at the State House — which dates back to the late 1700s — an “embarrassment to the people of the state.”

Credit: NJ Department of Treasury
State House cornice on third floor of south wing
The resolution approved by the panel yesterday said the building hasn’t been fully renovated since the 1950s and is now in a condition that “threatens the life, health, and safety of all persons who work at the Executive Branch Facility.”

But even as the resolution was passed by a 7-0 vote with one abstention, the project continues to draw criticism. Members of both political parties question whether the state can afford to pay for the renovation, especially at a time when Christie administration officials have been claiming that resources are stretched so thin the state can’t fully fund all of its statutory commitments, including the public-employee pension system and the state school-aid law.

Lesniak threatens to sue

And in the wake of yesterday’s vote, veteran state lawmaker Ray Lesniak — a Democrat who is running for governor this year — renewed a threat to sue the state to block the project from going forward.

Christie unveiled the State House renovation project in late November, saying it would be the first in decades for a section of the building that houses the signature gold-leaf dome, its rotunda and several executive-branch offices, including the governor’s office. This original part of the State House, located near the Delaware River on West State Street in Trenton, was built in 1792.

During a legislative hearing held earlier this year, state Treasurer Ford Scudder went over the building’s numerous hazardous conditions and code violations, pointing to posters that depicted poor smoke detection and fire escapes, inefficient heating and cooling systems, and old-fashioned windows held up only by a set of clips.

The resolution approved by the commission yesterday also detailed the building’s deteriorating conditions and said it would cost $8 million to $10 million to maintain it in its current shape even if the project — which will take four years to complete — is delayed as some have been calling for.

“The Executive Branch Facility is in a critical state of disrepair that threatens its structural integrity and, thereby, its historic, architectural, cultural, and artistic significance,” the resolution said.

Call for cap on spending

Although Christie’s administration has previously said the Trenton-based Economic Development Authority would issue bonds to pay for the renovations, the resolution provided some more detail on exactly how the state plans to finance and administer the project. While the EDA will issue the bonds, debt service will be paid by the commission through rent under a $1 lease-sublease agreement between the EDA and the commission, according to the resolution.

The resolution also called for a cap on spending of $300 million and for the state Department of Treasury, which is overseeing the project, to periodically provide reports on its efforts to reduce costs.

“Approval by the Joint Management Commission is the next step in moving forward with the State House renovation project,” Treasury said in a statement. “We continue to work with the Office of the Attorney General and outside bond counsel to ensure that all required approvals are secured as we advance this important and necessary renovation.”

But Lesniak, a state senator from Union County, has maintained that the project must also get approval from lawmakers before it can advance any further. He’s also urged the Christie administration to fund only the most necessary repairs since the state is borrowing the money to pay for the project.

‘Deceit and collusion’

Earlier this year, Lesniak threatened to sue the state to block the project from going forward, and yesterday he suggested that the commission’s vote now gives him the grounds to do so. Lesniak said he had been seeking more detailed information about the renovation effort, but his request was recently denied by Treasury.

“This deceit and collusion to keep the public in the dark before the vote by violating the (public-records) law gives the court a basis to void the vote,” Lesniak said.

Lesniak isn’t the only gubernatorial candidate who has been questioning the renovation this year. Christie’s own lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, a GOP hopeful, suggested in a recent online campaign ad that the money for the State House work should instead go toward providing assistance to the state’s neediest residents.

“We need to do better. We need to take that $300 million and help those people put a roof over their head and food on their table,” Guadagno said in the ad.

An original plan to renovate the State House that was outlined in the New Jersey Building Authority’s 2015 annual report called for a more modest “envelope” renovation that was to cost an estimated $38 million. But the scope was expanded more recently into the broader $300 million renovation, which is forcing employees who work in the building to move to temporary workspace. The project will also displace the media that works on Press Row in the State House beginning on July 1.