Gov. Chris Christie is once again raiding the state's clean energy fund, this time diverting $210 million from the program that pays to help residents and businesses save money on their utility bills by reducing energy consumption.
The governor did not mention the diversion in his speech to lawmakers, nor was it disclosed at a budget briefing for reporters earlier in the day. It only came to light late in the afternoon when the administration released a 145-page budget summary for the 2013 fiscal year -- a single line item identifying $210 million in interagency fund transfers to the general fund.
The move is not all that surprising. Christie has raided a variety of clean energy funds since taking office, shifting $52 million to help balance the state budget last year. It is a tactic first used by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who siphoned off $30 million in his last budget.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, said the budget utilizes "approximately $200 million in surplus dollars" collected by the state. The clean energy program has enough funding to run all current programs and future commitments in support of the Energy Master Plan, he said.
The money is raised by a surcharge on gas and electric bills for virtually all customers, amounting to about $5 per month for residential customers. But it can exceed $1 million for larger commercial and industrial firms, which use a lot of energy. Last year, the surcharge raised $379 million for the clean energy program.
The program typically fails to spend all of the money it collects, a failing criticized by a task force set up by the Board of Public Utilities that explored ways to cut customers' energy bills.
Although repeating a budget-balancing move he has used in the past -- Christie diverted more than $400 million in clean energy funds to balance his first state budget -- the proposal irked clean energy advocates. In his first three budgets, the Governor has diverted approximately $620 million in clean energy money into the general fund.
"They're cutting the program to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "When people go to buy an energy-efficient appliance, they won't be getting any rebates."
With New Jersey suffering from some of the highest electric bills in the country, clean energy advocates and energy experts say the best way to reduce those costs is to reduce energy consumption through energy efficiency projects funded by the program.
"This is obviously going to be terrible for clean energy programs," predicted Lyle Rawlings, president and chief executive office of Flemington-based Advanced Solar Products, who noted it should not hurt solar because it no longer relies on grants and rebates.
"The severest effect will be on other renewables and energy efficiency projects," he said. "It will generally cut the heart out of those programs."
David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, a group that endorsed Christie in his gubernatorial campaign, agreed.
"It continues a very troubling trend of the governor saying one thing and doing another on campaign promises to combat global warming and to promote green jobs," Pringle said.
In addition to transferring the $210 million out of the clean energy fund, the administration's proposed budget also moves $447,000 out of a global warming solutions fund into the general budget. Those funds were raised by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cooperative 10-state program that aims to reduce emissions contributing to climate change. To the dismay of environmentalists, Christie pulled the state out of the program at the end of last year.
While Democrats, who control both houses of the legislature, have protested about the diversion of clean energy funds in the past, they have agreed to the move in Christie's first two budgets.