New Jersey Senate Energy and Environment Committee Chairman Bob Smith noted today that on the environment, there should be no disagreements. Of course, we know that this is not the case with our current governor who puts the interests of his dirty energy donors ahead of clean air and water for New Jerseyans.
Several bills and resolutions were heard at Smith’s committee this morning. All but one passed with unanimous, bipartisan support. There was universal agreement on technical items related to the Environmental Infrastructure Trust (low-interest loans for certain projects), and the installation of automobile charging stations at rest areas on New Jersey’s major tollways.
The capstone of today’s meeting was SCR-163, a proposed amendment to the New Jersey Constitution to “dedicate all State moneys received from settlements and awards in cases of environmental contamination for certain environmental purposes.”
This approach, via constitutional amendment, is a last resort because Governor Christie has worked diligently to minimize the impact to Exxon for their long running record of despoiling the natural resources of our state. He vetoed several bills that would have required fair compensation for remediating some of Exxon’s contamination. Most notable is the Christie administration’s unilateral reduction of a proposed $8.9 billion settlement for the Bayway and Bayonne refinery pollution to an amount significantly less than $225 million – less than three cents on the dollar.
As Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey testified, public outcry against this giveaway has been “unprecedented.” There were over 40,000 comments submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection. Adding insult to injury, the way the Christie administration worded the settlement allows Exxon to claim one-third of the settlement amount as a tax writeoff. Kelly Mooij of the Audubon Society expressed the feelings of many of those testifying calling this a “theft of funds” from New Jersey citizens.
This was the second hearing for the proposed amendment. Following the first hearing, certain amendments proposed by environmental advocacy groups were incorporated in the language.
The resolution for the constitutional amendment passed with one dissenting vote – that of Republican Senator Sam Thompson. The other Republican on the panel, Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman agreed that this amendment should be brought to the people – he has often bucked the governor on some environmental issues.
In order for this amendment to appear on the ballot, there needs to be a three-fifths vote to approve in each of the chambers. After the hearing, I asked Senator Smith if he hoped to get this on the November ballot (which would require legislative approval by mid-August), and he indicated that this was his intention. But he pointed out that he has not yet spoken with the Senate President about posting this in the upper chamber. Nor has he had a conversation with Speaker Vincent Prieto, but one environmental activist told me that the Speaker, along with Assemblyman John McKeon, are on board. Given the timing, and the urgency to complete the budget, there may need to be a special session in July to discuss this amendment.
This is not the first time that the legislature has had to resort to a constitutional amendment to bypass Governor Christie’s right-wing agenda. In 2013, voters overwhelmingly approved an increase to the state minimum wage after relentless stonewalling and blockage by the governor. But if Smith is successful, this vote will be different. In 2013, the governor’s race was at the top of the ticket. This year, the local Assembly races are at the top, and turnout is bound to be less. If this resolution does make it to the ballot, expect relentless and frequent advertising from the energy companies containing half-truths urging defeat. Meanwhile, it’s a good idea to write to your legislators urging them to allow New Jersey to vote to reverse Christie’s self-serving decision.