By a vote of 56-18-3, the full Assembly approved a measure sponsored by Assembly Democrats John McKeon, Daniel Benson, Tim Eustace, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Annette Quijano and Mila Jasey that would ask voters in New Jersey to amend the state constitution so that money collected from environmental contamination lawsuits is used for restoration efforts and other environmental protection measures.
"Right now, the state is able to use this money for any purpose, and the Christie administration has taken full advantage of this," said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). "Since he took office, the governor has taken more than $1 billion from the state's clean energy program for the general fund. This money was not meant to plug holes in the budget. These funds were the result of environmental contamination settlements and should only be used to repair the damage caused by the contamination and for measures that can help protect our environment."
The resolution (ACR-127) would prioritize, in the following order, the use of the dedicated moneys used by the state to repair, restore, or replace damaged or lost natural resources of the state, or to permanently protect the natural resources of the state, in connection with the claim for which the money was recovered:
(1) in the immediate area in which the damage to the natural resources occurred; or
(2) in the same water region in which the damage to the natural resources occurred.
"Spending this money on anything other than environmental protection efforts sends the wrong message to residents and the companies who already think so little of protecting our natural resources. If the state is effectively saying it doesn't care about repairing the damage or investing in measures to protect our environment, why should big businesses?" said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex).
"Diverting these funds lessens our ability to counter the harm done by these companies. Ensuring that these funds are used for protective measures helps protect the environment and the public health," said Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic).
"The whole point of these settlements is to try and mitigate the environmental damage that has been inflicted," said Vainieri Huttle. (D-Bergen) "To confiscate these funds for other purposes is a huge dereliction of duty that should not be allowed."
"Residents in my district and the surrounding area saw their quality of life altered by damage done by Exxon, damage that will likely never be undone since the administration has diverted the funds received from the settlement. This should never be allowed to happen again," said Quijano (D-Union).
"Environmental remediation efforts are extremely costly and, if ignored, the consequences can impact whole generations," said Jasey (D-Essex/Morris). "When a company is found at fault and forced to pay damages, the money should be used to improve the lives of their very people that were affected by their conduct."
Under the bill, if no reasonable project is available to satisfy the first or second priority for the use of the moneys, or if there are moneys available after satisfying the first or second priority, moneys may be used by the state to repair, restore, or replace damaged or lost natural resources of the state, or permanently protect the natural resources of the state without geographic constraints.
In addition, no more than 10 percent of the moneys dedicated and appropriated annually pursuant to this constitutional amendment may be expended for administrative costs of the State, or its departments, agencies, or authorities for the authorized purposes.
Since the measure has passed both of the houses of the legislature by a three-fifths majority, it will now go on the ballot next November for voters to consider.