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Christie and Buono on the Environment: The Sounds of Silence

Worries about economy have pushed environmental issues almost entirely off candidates' agendas

christie and buono
Credit: Joe Sinnott

This is the second in a series of articles laying out the critical policy challenges that the next governor and Legislature will face, as well as their positions on these issues.

The state’s open-space preservation program is broke. Electric and gas transmission projects may soon traverse the New Jersey Highlands and the Pine Barrens, forested land previously set aside for protection. Questions abound on where and whether to pull back from the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy along the Jersey Shore.

Not that many years ago, those issues and others likely would have emerged as top concerns and would have been hotly debated in a gubernatorial contest. Not this year: The economy apparently trumps the environment.

In the race between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic challenger state Sen. Barbara Buono of Middlesex County, the environment rarely has been raised as a topic. Silence prevails, though some say the differences between the two candidates on this issue are as stark as they have ever been in a gubernatorial election.

Besides some discussion about the impact of climate change on New Jersey, environmental issues have failed to engage either candidate or the public to a large degree. So much for the green economy, an issue that some parties hoped would spur economic growth in the state by creating jobs developing offshore wind farms and new employment in the once flourishing solar sector..

The apathy even extends to a few environmental organizations that typically weigh in with endorsements -- but not this year. Both the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and Environment New Jersey are sitting out this fall’s election, waiting to see who will be the next governor.

Ed Potosnak, executive director of the NJLCV, said the organization is focusing on legislative elections this fall, where its limited financial resources can have more of an impact. This despite the fact that the group's primary goal this session was to enact a stable source of funding for open space, a failure that can be blamed on the Legislature. Environment New Jersey declined to say why it was not making an endorsement.

To be sure, Buono won the backing of two of the most prominent environmental organizations in the state: the New Jersey Sierra Club, perhaps the harshest critic of the governor, and the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which endorsed Christie just four years ago but is no longer on speaking terms with the administration.

Both groups’ criticisms of Christie’s environmental record are extensive.

For starters, there’s been no move to create a program to fund open-space preservation despite a pledge to do so four years ago during the governor's initial run for office. They also rail at the administration’s diversion of more than $800 million in clean energy funds (with the approval of the Democratic-controlled Legislature) to balance state budgets. They challenged the adoption of a controversial rule allowing state environmental officials to waive certain regulations if the agency deems them unduly burdensome, a case they lost.

“This race is unique,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the federation. “People don’t like the governor’s positions, but they like his style.’’

Even beyond the environment, however, Pringle argued the gubernatorial campaign has been largely devoid of substantive talk about any issue.

“What’s even more remarkable is there’s a lot to talk about and we’re not doing it,’’ Pringle said, referring to the environment. “He’s done a lot and it’s really bad.’’

For instance, the federation noted Christie criticized former Gov. Jon Corzine during the Republican’s initial campaign run for delaying the review of the state’s water supply master plan and vowed a quick assessment of the state’s drinking water supplies, a promised that has yet to be fulfilled. A blue-ribbon panel of former state officials called on the administration to complete the plan earlier this year, but there has been no response.

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