Jessica Gould covers politics and public finance for WNYC.
NJ Budget Diversions Drive Some Green Businesses into the Red
Friday, August 15, 2014
Since taking office, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has diverted more than $1 billion in environmental funds to the state's general fund.
Most of that comes from the state's Clean Energy Fund which gets its money from the Societal Benefits Charge on residents' gas and electric bills. The fund is supposed to support energy efficiency projects, but more than $900 million has been used to pay for things like keeping the lights on at state buildings and paying utility bills at NJ Transit, or the money has simply flowed into the general fund.
Other environmental funds have also been diverted. This year, the budget included new language that allows for a portion of money from future environmental settlements to go to the general fund as well.
Doug O'Malley, president of the advocacy group Environment New Jersey, says all those diversions mean fewer green jobs and more pollution in the state.
"The governor’s philosophy on environmental funding is take as much as you can as quickly as you can and hope no one’s asked questions," he said.
But Larry Ragonese, a spokesperson for the state's Department of Environmental Protection, says Christie is committed to environmental causes. In an email, he said the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on projects ranging from Sandy recovery to watershed restoration to cleanups of contaminated sites. Still, he said money is tight as the state continues to recover from the recession, and raising taxes, which are already high, isn’t the solution. For now the state is trying to be both "effective" and "efficient."
Meanwhile, Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University, says that what's happening in New Jersey is part of a broader trend. Across the river in New York, Governor Cuomo plans to borrow more than $250 million dollars from the state’s clean water fund to help pay for the new Tappan Zee Bridge.
"Governors, not just in the state of New Jersey, but across the country, are looking for temporary solutions to long-term problems. And they’re doing this by essentially moving money around," she said. "What governors are doing is they’re attempting to avoid politically unpopular decisions like raising state income and sales taxes by using money that has been dedicated for other purposes."