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Dems Give Christie A Pass On Environmental Cuts and Rollbacks

[Update: NJNewsroom: Christie cutting $65 million for global warming prevention [Note: The headline and story are misleading. The $65 million is only the RGGI cut from  DEP account – there is $240+million  more cut from BPU Clean Energy Fund.]

Bipartisan Scapegoating of DEP at Budget Hearing

I don’t know where to begin. How can a conservative anti-environmental Governor propose to eliminate the DEP Office of Climate Change and cut over $300 million in energy conservation and renewable energy money and get no political pushback from Democrats?

For those interested in the official documents, for DEP Commissioner Martin’s testimony and the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS) analysis see this. To listen to the hearing, click this.

This was hardly the first time in my 25 year career that I had to sit though a DEP budget hearing. They tend to be annual ceremonies for Legislators to posture and bash DEP for some failure or other, while the DEP Commissioner spins and tries to pull the wool over their eyes.

But still, today was very different – even more hollow. It was difficult to sit through 3 hours and now write about the Assembly Budget Committee’s hearing on DEP’s FY 2010-2011 budget without ridiculing what went on, expressing despair about the state of our democracy, and ranting about the abject failure of the Trenton environmental lobby in educating legislators on the Committee.

A set of falsehoods propagated by the business community permeated the hearing: DEP is “broken”; permit delays are causing significant negative impacts on the depressed economy; and DEP and environmental regulations must be streamlined and reformed to stimulate the economy.

Chairman Greenwald tried to skirt a lack of evidence supporting this myth by distinguishing between negative perception of DEP and the reality (e.g perceptions are reality). Commissioner Martin also tried to play this game, with anecdotes, but he went even further than Greenwald and conceded the point:

“While a certain amount of this reputation can be attributed to hyperbole put forward by select members of the regulated community, much of the criticism is warranted”

Instead of adopting the traditional stance of his predecessors to diplomatically defuse and dispel these convenient myths while stroking a legislator’s ego, today DEP Commissioner Martin strongly reinforced these myths in his testimony.

While caving to the political pressures of legislators, Martin produced no evidence to support a diagnosis of what had caused the financial recession afflicting NJ, the United States, and the global economy. In fact, contrary to these myths, almost all credible professional economists attribute the causes to the financial sector and virtually none target environmental regulation and permit delays – the exclusive focus of today’s scapegoating of DEP for killing the economy.

Since 1993, DEP submits annual “Doria” Reports to the legislature on permit processing actions. These reports indicate that DEP approves over 99% of permits and that backlogs in permit approvals are almost exclusively for  currently operating facilities. When delay occurs, these facilities continue to operate under the old permits. Therefore, contrary to the myths that DEP permit backlogs are somehow harming the economy, the data suggest that DEP is not delaying economic development of new projects.

In fact, just the opposite is true: DEP has issued thousands of permits to projects that have not been built. That is why the Legislature recently enacted the Permit Extension Act. There are a glut of DEP approved permits for projects that lack financing  and/or demand due to the financial collapse. Solutions lie on Wall Street, the banking industry, and creating Main Street demand. Streamlining DEP approvals will do absolutely nothing to stimulate the economy or create jobs.

Despite these facts and economic realities, Martin openly expressed “skepticism” of the data in DEP Reports submitted to the Legislature on permit backlogs, but provided not one fact to justify his skepticism. How can an Agency head smear his own Department’s data so casually and without evidence?

Martin gave no evidence that DEP had any impact whatsoever on the depressed economy, or any facts to support the harshly negative assessment of DEP performance  he offered in his testimony:

The DEP is broken and needs to be fixed. We must and will make dramatic changes to how we fundamentally do business at the DEP.  We need to make permitting and inspections timely and predictable. We need to play a key role in the economic growth of the state. All regulations need to be based on science, data, facts, and cost benefit analysis. Individuals and businesses coming to DEP for permits must be treated like customer (sic).

This is the same tired fact free rhetoric Martin used 3 months ago at his press conference announcement as Christie DEP Commissioner.

In keeping with the fact free Martin testimony, note that OLS stated the following unprecedented caveat:

“OLS presents its analysis of the NJ Budget for Fiscal Year 2010-2011 in truncated form due to extraordinary time constraints. Unlike those of previous years, this year’s analysis is confined to a review of significant changes in appropriations and language provisions recommended by the governor. Discussion points, long a feature of annual OLS budget analyses, will be made under separate cover and on the internet, together with agency responses, from time to time as they are received”

Let’s hope the Senate gets a more thorough OLS analysis and more honest DEP testimony, and conducts substantive oversight accordingly.

So, before I get to today’s bad and the ugly, let me first report the few relatively positive things said (that these are “positive” suggest how truly bad things are):

1)  Commissioner Martin said that the DEP Office of Climate Change would not be eliminated totally. He said its budget was zeroed because it was funded by the $65 million RGGI program revenues diverted by the Governor. Martin said that most of the staff will remain and continue developing NJ DEP’s green house gas reduction program. But Martin did not provide (and was not asked to produce) a workload estimate of the staff and resource required to actually implement the ambitious program outlined in the final Global Warming Response Act (GWRA) Plan released by DEP on December 24, 2009. In order to implement the GWRA, a huge increase in DEP staff and resources would be required.

Furthermore, Martin’s testimony stated that these were one time cuts made necessary by the fiscal crisis. However, DEP’s Response to OLS questions states that the 4 FTE  staff cuts in that small office (about 50% reduction of the current staffing) is NOT a one shot deal but “represents a continuing savings“. Let’s hope that the Senate probes this flat out contradiction between Martin’s testimony and DEP written materials.

The context here is that Governor Christie is diverting over $300 million of Clean Energy Funds and destroying thousands of good jobs dependent upon that investment.

2) Commissioner Martin acknowledged that many permit applications submitted to the DEP are technically deficient. Yet DEP gets blamed as the bad guy for rejecting those applications and causing permit processing delays;

3) DEP, relative to other state Departments, saw the smallest percentage cuts.

If that is the good stuff, I don’t think you want me to go into the bad and the ugly right now –

So I will hold off in hopes of more serious deliberations in the Senate Budget Committee on April 27.

Bottom Line: in terms of stupid, irresponsible rhetoric, it’s a toss-up between Assemblymen Mallone or O’Scanlon.

Despite the fact that O’Scanlon said he personally would donate to a Fund to pave and recreate the parking lot being converted to an urban riverfront State Park along banks of the Delaware River behind the State House, I’ll go with Mallone, because he gets his briefings from Hal Bozarth of the Chemistry Council (gentleman that he is, my good friend Hal said “Fuck you!” when I suggested this after the hearing!).

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