Our State Supreme Court has just heard a case on whether Governor Chris Christie overstepped his authority when he abolished the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) and transferred its duties to the Department of Community Affairs. If the Court were to rule in favor of the government the outcome would have negative financial repercussions, hurt those who need low-cost housing, and place other independent agencies in jeopardy. Fortunately, Justices raised critical questions, but we are reminded that who is appointed to the Supreme court really matters.
This is not the first time Governor Christie has sought to abolish departments and agencies, and end or transfer their functions. In 2010 he succeeded in closing down the Public Advocate office. He failed in 2010 when he tried to do the same with the independent State Commission of Investigation. Sen. Barbara Buono played a key role in foiling his effort.
What Christie seeks with COAH is more than just closing it down. He also wants to seize more than $140 million originally earmarked for low-cost housing to balance the state budget. Not much concern here for those who can only afford low-income homes.
The stakes are high. As Adam Gordon, staff attorney for the Fair Share Housing Center, says:
“If the administration wins this case, the governor would have the ability to abolish any independent agency from the Board of Public Utilities and the Election Law Enforcement Commission to the Public Defender’s Office, the Highlands Commission, and the Pinelands Commission. This would be an extension of the governor’s power that could make any independent agencies subject to the governor’s control, and that’s dangerous.”
Interestingly one of Christie’s nominees for the Supreme Court is Robert M. Hanna, currently President of the Board of Public Utilities. Regardless of how Mr. Hanna would have voted (or recused himself) on this case were he already to have been confirmed, it is clear that this is only one instance among many in which the Supreme Court has a powerful impact on the lives of New Jerseyans. That impact should not be ruled by a court with only two Democrats as Christie demands. Our governor should change his course and nominate at least one Democrat before the Senate reviews his nominations. With COAH Christie is overstepping and with the Supreme Court he is overreaching.