Democratic lawmakers yesterday embraced sweeping revisions to how the state adopts regulations, a move they argued would improve New Jersey’s business climate, but critics said it would weaken environmental protection.
With bipartisan support, the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee approved a package of four bills to streamline the state’s administrative law process, a system set up more than two decades ago to govern how state laws are implemented and business agencies can appeal unfavorable decisions by cabinet officers.
The proposals reflect some of the recommendations of Gov. Chris Christie’s Red Tape Review Group and include changes sought by business lobbyists for years. If implemented, they said it would streamline the regulatory process and reduce costs associated with contested cases involving administrative law court judges.
"New Jerseyans have been waiting too long for us to find ways to reduce the mountains of regulation affecting their daily lives, while still honoring our responsibility to protect the environment and citizens," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), the chairman of the committee and a member of the red tape group.
But Jeff Tittel, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the package just a continuation of the assault by Democratic lawmakers on the state’s environmental laws. "It’s a race between the Christie administration and the Democratic legislature over who can do more damage to the environment and public health," he said.
Burzichelli argued the bills do not change any standards. “I disagree strongly we are weakening environmental protections,’’ he said, after another environmentalist had testified against the package of bills. Virtually every major business interest group spoke in favor of the changes, particularly a bill that would wrest final authority in contested cases with administrative law court judges.
Under current law, if a developer has a permit that an agency denied, he or she can appeal the decision to an administrative law court judge who hears the case, listens to expert witnesses and hears lawyers for both sides cross-examine the witnesses. At the end of the case, the judge issues a decision that typically goes to a cabinet officer, who can accept, modify or reject the decision. One of the bills in the package (A-2722) would give the law judges final decision in contested cases instead of a cabinet member.
"This is the single most important thing you can do if you want real regulatory reform," said George Tyler, a lawyer who added clients often spend thousands of dollars on attorney and expert witness fees in administrative law court cases and see the judge rule in their favor and then have the decision overturned by an agency head. "It’s time for a change."
Dave Pringle, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, disagreed. "They’re not hydrologists, geologists, or whatever," Pringle said, referring to the Administrative Office of Law judges. "We want this based on science."
Another bill requires that an agency, when promoting a rule or regulation, must determine whether it impacts other agencies. If there are agency conflicts, they must resolved or go to AOL for a resolution, which then becomes the final decision.
Tittel suggested that could result in a scenario where say the Health Department develops a new standard for toxic cleanup but the Department of Community Affairs decides that it could impact development. This could result in the health-based standard not going into effect, depending on which way the AOL judge rules, a prospect putting people at risk, he said.
The other bills in the package would allow substantive changes to agency rulemaking upon adoption (A-2720) instead of requiring the agency to repropose the rule and hold new public hearings and a measure (A-2721) that would change the expiration of new rules from five to 10 years.