The Political ‘Climate’ of Murphy’s Budget Address

Murphy

As Governor Phil Murphy prepares to deliver his budget address, shifting the weight of Trenton’s conversations away from COVID onto other priorities, some of the fundamental New Jersey problems remain unaddressed, and with heavy political implications, as evidenced by the November 2021 election.  First, affordability has been the biggest point of contention the Garden State has to reconcile.  Republicans have successfully used the ever-increasing cost of living in New Jersey to their advantage, and Governor Murphy promised to make affordability concerns one of his top priorities.  The other is climate change.  Hand-in-hand with affordability concerns is a strain familiar to all New Jerseyans: over-development.

Development means money.  More properties mean more ratables, more population means a greater tax base—but it also means a greater demand for finite goods and services.  Every empty lot is tempting as a source of dollars.  But New Jersey is a small, densely populated state and New Jersey is also feeling the impacts of climate change profoundly, as evidenced by the increasing power and frequency of storms that batter the Garden State.  Super Storm Sandy pulverized the shore to the tune of billions and Hurricane Ida struck deep into the interior of the state, causing mass flooding and damage.  Ferocious storms have become altogether common, and with New Jersey continually building more and more in the limited amount of space it has, development continues to spread along flood zones and the increasing amount of impervious surfaces such as parking lots, rooftops, roadways, etc. deny the ground the ability to absorb rainwater.

On climate change, the governor has successfully managed to create the image of being a green governor, but for enviros like Jeff Tittel, recently retired director of the Sierra Club and former NJ Sandy HUD Task Force Advisory Committee member, there are a number of areas where the state can and should work to do better. 

The first thing is to understand some of the implications that climate change presents to New Jersey along with its consequences (read: a more expensive state).  The next is for the governor to have a budget and policies in place that will either seek to insulate against the effects (politically easier, more costly in the long-run) or to attempt to mitigate the effects (very difficult politically, less costly in the long-run).

Everyone knows New Jersey summers are hot and humid, but models show that as temperatures increase, the nature of the climate changes with it, assuming less temperate qualities, with more southern climes expanding northward such as over New Jersey.  With an increase of moisture absorbed into the air, there is an increase in rainfall.  With more rain comes more runoff, pouring into the rivers, streams, and man-made waterways which are already under strain and inadequate as proven most recently by Hurricane Ida.  Overdevelopment in uplands also denies more ground absorption there, further contributing to more runoff. In short, one issue feeds the other, exacerbating the problems.  With unchecked development, the risks and costs associated with the inevitable damage that follows also continues to increase.  Therefore, New Jersey continues to be a more expensive place to live, and also a less safe one.

Tittel said that groups like the Sierra Club have, over the years, been working with insurers to understand the risks associated with climate change.  Homes built in areas prone to flooding, like barrier islands and bays, may make for desirable locations in terms of views, but they are a risk not only for the property owners, but also for policyholders.  That, in turn, is another factor which makes New Jersey expensive.  “Part of the problem is when they assess that risk, they spread it out to everybody else. So people who do not live in flood zones are subsidizing all the flood-prone people who are building in the wrong areas. A working-class homeowner in Belleville is subsidizing the giant mansions being built in Beach Haven or Long Beach Island. It’s wrong what we’re doing—subsidizing that development at the expense of the taxpayers and the ratepayers. When those houses get damaged, we pay to rebuild them. When the roads get washed out, when water and sewer pipes get destroyed, when the gas lines get destroyed, it’s the ratepayers or utilities or the taxpayers that pay to restore them. We’re subsidizing not only building in the wrong places, we’re actually subsidizing them to be there, and then we’re giving them money to then rebuild in the wrong places.”

Tittel described the scenario as financial insanity.

Cortney Koenig Worrall, the President and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, shares Tittel’s worries, especially for coastal areas.  “The impacts of climate change are no longer abstract for New Jersey’s coastal and riverine communities.  Inland communities are dealing with more frequent and intense flood events that have intensified in just the last few years.  With nearly $5 billion of coastal real estate and the highest number of affordable housing units at risk of flooding in the nation, it’s time for New Jersey to make strong commitments to climate resilience and adaptation strategies.”

As a coastal state, Tittel said that New Jersey is in the “crosshairs” of sea level rise and climate disruption.  “We have had more catastrophic and dangerous storms than almost any other place in the country. We’re seeing sea level rise here higher than almost any other place in the country, we’re second in the nation in increase in temperature. The governor talks a lot about it, but he doesn’t want to step on the toes of special interests. Instead, we’re putting more and more people in harm’s way, which is going to lead to more loss of property and actual loss of life. It’s also devastating for the taxpayers because we’re spending billions of dollars a year dealing with flood damage, and we will use more dollars restoring infrastructure and other things that have been damaged by floods.”

So what can Murphy, or the state more broadly, do?  Tackling the cause of climate change, the emission of greenhouse gases, is one thing, but New Jersey is just one small piece of a much larger picture.  While it should do its part, New Jersey needs to look at mitigation strategies and overcome its institutional political myopia, perhaps setting a nearly impossible task of looking at long-view problems with a telescope that seldom extends past the next one or two election cycles.

 “The budget for environment has been underfunded, the budget may have gone up a little bit for DEP, but there’s less staff now than there were under Chris Christie,” Tittel said.  “The governor had promised to not raid the clean energy funds, and he continues to raids those at really high levels. That’s money that’s supposed to go to low- and moderate-income families for energy efficiency programs so they save money on their electric bills, and reduce pollution from power plants. We don’t have enough money in the budget to deal with climate change, to update all our rules, regulations, and programs.”

Tittel said that there needs to be further investment in electric vehicle technology, whether getting more charging stations installed or compelling New Jersey Transit and other state agencies to acquire electric vehicles.  He also said that the state has to do more to make public incentives for getting electric vehicles as a step in the right direction.

With respect to overdevelopment, Tittel lamented the New Jersey Turnpike looking at spending $16 billion to add lanes and consume more land, rather than seeing greater development in mass transit. “Adding [Turnpike] lanes right through Jersey City will create more pollution, but also more traffic because they will have nowhere to go when they get to the Holland Tunnel.”  Promoting more warehouse development and sprawling over farmland in the more rural parts of the state would further exacerbate New Jersey’s overdevelopment problem, according to Tittel.  “The administration’s policies do not live up to its rhetoric. Now, the governor says a lot of the right things, but when it comes to really putting the state’s budget where his mouth is, it’s nowhere near there.”

If New Jersey was in need of incentivizing the preservation of land and smarter management of existing development, for Tittel the opposite is in full force.  “We incentivize development.  New Jersey put $2 billion to build a mall in a flood-prone area in the Meadowlands, the American Dream. We have tools to stop a lot of the warehouse development through the water quality planning rules and other things and they don’t do it.”

In northernmost New Jersey, Tittel said there are warehouse proposals on deck which could be stopped, if there was the political will to do so.  “The Highlands Council could stop some of those big warehouses in White Township, Franklin, and others. I think when you put corporate lobbyists on the commissions it  leads to more development, not less. That’s a big concern. But the state has a lot of powers that they don’t use. The state can limit development in environmentally sensitive areas and urban areas, not giving access off the highways or developments to most of these areas, especially when the rural areas are inconsistent with the Water Quality Management Planning rules.”

There are a lot of options open to the state, Tittel said, if they have the willingness to use them, even as simple as not issuing permits to protect select areas.

With the budget ahead, the governor has been asked by a coalition of green organizations, spearheaded by the League of Conservation Voters, to prioritize environmental funding.  Tom Gilbert, the co-executive director of the NJ Conservation Foundation, echoed Tittel’s concerns in a statement.  “We need to invest more in clean energy, public transit, reducing pollution, climate resiliency, and greening our communities. Doing so will more than pay for itself through improved public health, safer and more livable communities, good local jobs, and a stronger economy.”

The League of Conservation Voters addressed “resiliency” issues, acknowledging that the effects of climate change will have an impact on property damage. “The state should provide full funding to the Delaware River Basin Commission to support the agency’s work in flood mitigation and also invest $10 million in a new program that provides funding for local municipalities seeking to implement local and regional climate resilience programs.”

On climate change itself, Tittel was not optimistic as far as Murphy’s record to date.  “I think that there have been many steps forward like offshore wind, but in all other areas, no. DEP enforcement has gotten weaker. We’re not investing where we need to be when it comes to expanding mass transit and limiting highway development. We are doing the opposite. We’re not putting money into reducing greenhouse gases, we’re still promoting pipelines and power plants. For every pipeline that the governor has come out against, there’s been at least one built. We have permitted a lot of fossil fuel projects under this administration and if you look at the numbers, we have not reduced greenhouse gases under Murphy. They have not gone down, and they put out rules that will pretty much allow over 90% of existing power plants to stay operating at least until 2035 if not beyond. So, when it comes to the tough issues, when it comes to dealing with climate change, eliminating fossil fuel infrastructure, and power plants, the governor’s full of hot air.”

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2 responses to “The Political ‘Climate’ of Murphy’s Budget Address”

  1. Wondering how new housing construction projects are being approved with the population attrition in NJ.l? Seems like there is a big disconnect. The growth or attrition should be tied to environmental factors and population migration trends.

  2. Wondering how new housing construction projects are being approved with the population attrition in NJ? Seems like there is a big disconnect. The construction should be tied to environmental factors and population migration trends.

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