LETTER Governor’s Budget Steals from Environmental Settlements

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Today the Assembly Budget Committee is holding a public hearing on the FY2017 budget. The Governor’s proposed budget still targets the environment and takes monies from NRD settlements for the general fund. Just like he did last year, the Governor’s plan is to steal more settlement money like he did with the Passaic River settlement and now Exxon. Other targets include open space and the clean energy fund.

 

“This year’s budget has the same language as last year that allows the Administration to steal money from environmental and Natural Resource Damage settlements. It’s the same language that allowed them to steal $140 million from Passaic River Settlement. This is supposed to go to environmental programs and to the people in those areas who have been impacted by pollution. These resources should be held in the public trust and should not be grabbed by the Governor, yet again,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of The New Jersey Sierra Club. “This budget is the same as last year. They’re still stealing settlement money. He is still balancing the budget on the backs of the environment while giving tax cuts and subsidies to polluters. He is taking money away from protecting children from lead paint. Even though he’s back home, his budget is still more about his national political ambitions rather than taking care of the people or environment of New Jersey. Again we will be saying, dirty deeds done dirty cheap.”

 

The FY2017 budget language itself is as follows:

 

“Except as otherwise provided in this act and notwithstanding the provisions of any other law or regulation to the contrary, the first $50,000,000 in natural resource, cost recoveries and other associated damages recovered by the State, along with such additional amounts as may be determined by the Director of the Division of Budget and Accounting, in consultation with the Attorney General, to be necessary to pay for the costs of legal services related to such recoveries, shall be deposited into the Hazardous Discharge Site Cleanup Fund established pursuant to section 1 of P.L.1985, c.247 (C.58:10–23.34), and are appropriated for: direct and indirect costs of remediation, restoration, and clean up; costs for consulting, expert, and legal services incurred in pursuing claims for damages; and grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations to further implement restoration activities of the Office of Natural Resource Restoration. Recoveries in excess of the amounts appropriated pursuant to this paragraph, consistent with the terms and conditions of applicable settlement agreements or court rulings, shall be deposited into the General Fund as general State revenue.”

 

This year’s budget continues to steal funds from settlements and cut important environmental programs. Some of those issues include:

 

Exxon Settlement

 

The $146,618 in Special Revenue from the DEP is a diversion of legal settlement funds, such as Exxon, to general funds. Funds from environmental settlements such as the Exxon deal should be used to help communities who have suffered from their actions, not to make the Governor look like he is fixing the budget. They’re using too much of this money for the wrong purposes and robbing the environment to plug budget holes.

 

“The Christie Administration sold out the people of New Jersey for less than pennies on the dollar with the Exxon settlement. The settlement was worth $8.9 billion yet they settled for $225 million. Monies from natural resources belong to the public not to politicians and under this deal the politicians get the money. Out of the $225 million settlement: $50 million would go towards legal fees. That means no monies will go to restoration or the environment and $175 million will go to the General Fund. This settlement violates the Public Trust Doctrine because these lands belong to all of us,” said Jeff Tittel. “Under New Jersey law, the public is to be compensated for the loss of those public resources, however now they no longer are.  Now only they did accept Exxon’s sell-out of a deal, but the Christie Administration is using the settlement money to fix the budget instead of to cleaning up communities who need it.”

 

DEP Funding Continues to Drop

 

The Christie Administration is continuing to divert DEP funds to general parts of the budget including:

  • Money is being diverted from Open Space and Parks Capital to pay for park salaries.
  • $16 million diverted from the Spill Act
  • $18 million diverted from the Hazardous Discharge Fund

Millions of dollars from the DEP is being taken to fund non-environmental programs. This is money that is supposed to be for cleaning up dangerous pollution but instead is going to be diverted to the general funds. The FY2017 Budget’s Environmental Protection breakdown is as follows:

State Appropriations: $394,113

Federal Funds: $170,332

All Other Funds (Dedicated): $106,528

Special Revenue/Trust/Bond Funds: $146,618

Total: $817,591

Total DEP budget: $343,401,000 (Operations: $225,332,000)

“This is a death by a thousand cuts. The DEP’s budget has been down a third under the Christie Administration: we now have the lowest level of DEP funding since the Kean Administration. Just this year we’re seeing $100 million being transferred out of the DEP for other purposes,” said Jeff Tittel.

 

Replacing Staffing with Stewardship

 

DEP staffing is still down by more than a third under Governor Christie and more positions continue to go unfilled. There are many gaps in programs and they are cutting staff at core programs in the agency like enforcement and water. Instead the budget is shifting money to vague “stewardship” programs. Stewardship is not defined and often used for logging and other things that undermine the protection of natural resources in our parks. For example, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife cut down trees to create grass habitat. We could be clear-cutting the Pinelands to create habitat for invasive species. Giving money to stewardship would mean it ends up being used for the wrong purposes.

 

“The Governor’s policies side with stewardship over actual environmental programs. Pushing for stewardship on public lands is a way to allow for private companies to log environmentally sensitive public lands. Cutting staff at core programs in the agency like enforcement and water put our environment and public health at risk,” said Jeff Tittel. “The Governor is using the idea of stewardship to try to privatize Liberty State Park. He has cut staffing for parks to lowest level in 30 years so he can use ‘stewardship programs’ instead. He is trying to turn New Jersey’s famous historic landmark into a shopping mall or entertainment center.”

 

Money for Lead Abatement Stolen

 

The budget also continues in previous year’s patterns of stealing money for lead abatement. In it, we see $10 million diverted from lead abatement money. This money assists homeowners and property owners in reducing lead-based paint hazards in housing units. Lead is one of the most hazardous substances known to man and it impacts children, especially small children, in our urban areas. Lead paint is a danger that can cause illness and even in small amounts can lead to brain damage and learning disabilities.

 

“Children in our cities have higher levels of lead in them then Flint, Michigan. It’s unconscionable that the Governor is robbing money that would help protect children from lead paint. This money is used to remove this dangerous substance from homes across the state. By diverting these funds, the Governor is showing he cares more about plugging budget holes than he does the health of our children. Yet again the Governor is taking money from a program to remove poisonous lead from children’s homes and using it to fund the budget,” said Jeff Tittel.

 

Clean Energy Fund Robbed Once Again

 

There is $112 million directly being diverted from the Clean Energy Fund with $53 million of that going towards lighting on governmental buildings and $63 million for New Jersey Transit. This is also only what’s listed so far and more money may get taken as it has in the past.

 

“The Governor has turned the Clean Energy Fund into an ATM. He is taking money that should be used to make New Jersey greener in order to balance the budget. This is on top of the over $1.1 billion that he has already stolen over his years as Governor. This is the money that helps people buy energy efficient products and weatherize their homes.  This money could be used to help people rebuild their houses in an efficient way and instead it is going to the General Fund.  This money also funds offshore wind and other renewable energy programs.  We have been waiting more than 5 years for the administration to act on offshore wind. Other states around New Jersey will be reaping the economic and environmental benefit of offshore wind, while New Jersey is left in the wind,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

 

The hearing is being held on Wednesday, March 9th at 9:30am at  Montclair State University, University Hall Conference Center, Seventh Floor, 1 Normal Avenue, Montclair, NJ.

 

Jamie Zaccaria

Administrative Assistant

New Jersey Sierra Club