The Legislature is aiming to cure itself of a troubling habit: routinely diverting millions of dollars intended to fight lead poisoning into the general fund instead.
In a unanimous vote, the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee yesterday approved a bill (SCR-26) that would constitutionally dedicate a portion of sales tax revenue to lead abatement projects.
The action on the bill came less than a week after the Legislature approved a fiscal year 2019 budget that siphons off $23 million in lead abatement money from a new program and shifts it to the general fund.
Such diversions have become common in Trenton during the annual budget deliberations, as lawmakers and governors struggle to balance a budget in a state typically fiscally constrained. It has happened repeatedly with the 14-year-old lead-abatement program, with more than $53 million drained from that fund since it was enacted in 2004.
Diversions: the order of the day
The diversions also have occurred with environmental cleanup efforts, clean-energy programs, and affordable-housing initiatives. So much so, that advocates have taken to constitutionally dedicating funds to specific programs.
The measure approved yesterday follows that trend, asking voters to pass a new constitutional amendment to dedicate a portion of sales tax revenue from sales of paint to lead-abatement programs, such as removing lead-based paints from homes. It is the most widespread form of lead exposure for children, who face the greatest health threats from the contaminant.
“Does every environmental-funding source need to be funded?” asked Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Given what’s happened, I guess the answer is yes.’’
In the hearing, lawmaker also criticized the practice of diverting money, despite the body’s history of raiding funds.
“It’s sad. Fourteen million dollars is not going to make or break a budget at any time,’’ said Sen. Ron Rice, a Democrat from Newark, who sponsored the measure. Without the diversions, $14 million is what typically would have gone into the lead-abatement fund.
“It’s a shame,’’ agreed Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson). “It’s a shame in 2018 we are still talking about this. It is unreal that this is still going on.’’
It is unlikely the bill will make it on this November’s ballot, since the measure would have to be approved by both houses before August. That is unlikely, with legislators scheduled to go on their summer recess following this Thursday’s session — unless an impasse over the budget leads to additional meetings.
“This should go before the voters to ensure the funds are spent on lead-prevention programs,’’ said Arnold Cohen, senior policy coordinator for the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey. “It’s insane that we still have children poisoned by lead and we’re not inspecting their housing.’’
In New Jersey last year, 3,500 children were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
“The question is whether they can get this on the ballot in time for this November,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Otherwise, they still get to steal the money.’’