TRENTON – Democratic legislators Monday resumed a long-running debate with the Christie administration over environmental policy’s role in making New Jersey a competitive place to do business.
Taking a timeout from reelection campaigns, lawmakers returned for committee votes, including two on pushing back major Christie administration environmental ideas.
A Senate panel moved to block a proposed rule allowing the Department of Environmental Protection to waive regulations for businesses and citizens seeking permits or approvals in certain instances.
It also voted to require New Jersey to obtain 30 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020 – a standard Gov. Christie three months ago called unrealistic and dropped back to 22.5 percent in his energy master plan.
Lobbyists and advocates jammed the third-floor hearing room of the Senate Environmental and Energy Committee to testify. The measures passed, 3-2, along party lines, with Republicans voting no.
The waiver is grounded in Christie’s Executive Order 2, which calls on state agencies to adopt programs to give businesses and citizens “relief from regulatory burdens.”
The DEP in March proposed waiving certain regulations if they conflicted with other state or federal rules, or created “an exceptional and undue hardship.” Other exceptions would be made if the waivers would enhance the environment or were deemed necessary in an emergency.
The Senate panel’s resolution states that the proposal is not consistent with the legislative intent of many laws. If approved by the Legislature, the resolution would give the state environmental commissioner 30 days to amend or withdraw the waiver rule.
The rule could take effect any day, though the DEP is reviewing comments and could make changes.
Business groups, including the state builders’ association, opposed the committee’s resolution.
The waiver rule “gives both the DEP and businesses the opportunity to have common sense applied to the regulatory process,” said Sara Bluhm, vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
“As we’re looking at how to rebuild the economy . . . we need to know that there is flexibility at the DEP,” Bluhm said.
Environmental advocates supported the resolution, saying language in the waiver rule was too vague and gave administrators too much discretion.
Bill Wolfe, head of New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, predicted that every applicant before the DEP would apply for a waiver, increasing the burden on an agency trying to focus its resources on the biggest issues.
“This makes the DEP workload go through the roof,” said Wolfe, a former employee of the agency.
Another bill that cleared the environmental panel on Monday took a swipe at Christie’s energy master plan by requiring 30 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020.
New Jersey currently requires 22.5 percent to be obtained from renewable energy sources by 2020. A 2008 energy plan under Gov. Jon S. Corzine increased that goal to 30 percent. The increase was never enacted and, describing it as a “pie in the sky” standard, Christie called for a return to the 22.5 percent energy goal in the plan he released in June.
This bill will “make sure the market knows New Jersey is a place for them to do business. . . . This bill is critical not only to help us lower our greenhouse gases and air pollution, but it’s critical for New Jersey’s economy,” Jeff Tittel, president of the New Jersey Sierra Club, told lawmakers.
Christie’s energy plan also called for phasing out the Societal Benefits Charge, a portion of consumers’ electric bills that helps fund, among other things, programs for energy efficiency, clean energy, and assistance to low-income households in paying utility costs.
Legislators deleted a provision Monday that would have set that charge at the level in effect at the beginning of 2011, following testimony from opponents who argued that the charge is too expensive in a state that has among the highest electricity costs in the country.
Bluhm, for example, noted that locking in the charge at the 2011 level would not let the state lower the cost. She said one small manufacturer for whom the charge cost $25,000 described it as one of his biggest complaints, while other companies are paying more than $1 million.
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