Lee Solomon gave little hint to how he would deal with a controversy involving the diversion of $158 million in clean energy money to help solve New Jersey’s budget gap, but he easily won approval yesterday from the Senate Judiciary Committee and later that afternoon from the full Senate.
Solomon was sworn in and began serving today as president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU), the agency that regulates the companies supplying gas, electricity, water, telephone and cable television to consumers and businesses.
In a relatively quick hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Solomon, a judge in the Superior Court in Camden County before resigning yesterday, parried most questions from senators about the clean energy fund, moving the agency’s headquarters from Newark to Trenton and other issues. As a sitting judge, Solomon said he had not yet fully examined all of the issues confronting the board.
Most of the questioning directed at Solomon focused on Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to divert roughly 60 percent of funds in the state’s Clean Energy program, which help finance energy conservation and solar and wind power projects, to help plug a $2 billion hole in the current state budget.
Several senators questioned the legality of the move, noting it was legislation signed into law more than a decade ago setting aside a portion of utility bills to finance the clean energy projects. “It’s really not the state’s money; it is ratepayers’ money,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the chairman of the panel.
Afterward, Solomon said the dispute over the clean energy fund is an issue that will have to be settled by the Governor and Legislature, but he added that he did not believe any funds should be taken from projects that already have received commitments from the program.
“Based on my understanding of how money is allocated, it’s a program with a running balance,” he said. “As funds are expended, they are replenished by the money raised by ratepayers.”
Nonetheless, some Democrats were critical of shifting the funds. Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) said it set a “dangerous precedent” in terms of the state honoring its commitments. “The unintended consequences could be devastating for New Jersey. No one is going to invest in the state,” he warned.
Solomon said he backed a Christie transition committee report recommending the state switch the board’s headquarters from Newark to Trenton, noting the capital is far more accessible to most New Jerseyans than the state’s largest city. He also said it makes sense switching from an “expensive” private lease in Newark to state-owned office space in Trenton, but he could not put a price on the lease when asked about it by a senator.