Budget Priorities Hurt Urban Areas and Parks
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee held a public hearing today on Gov. Murphy’s proposed budget FY2020. The DEP budget has been cut by 17.8% in the spending plan and operations by 10%. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, released the following statement.
“This budget takes less this year from environmental programs to support the general fund, however there are still significant diversions and cuts to programs and the DEP in particular. This budget has the wrong priorities, continuing to take money out of the environment and away from urban areas, and shifting it into wealthy suburbs. The diversion of these funds is a regressive tax that especially hurts working families and urban poor people.
“Year after year DEP is cut to the bone and now Gov. Murphy is cutting through the bone into the marrow, slashing the FY2020 budget by 17.8% and the operations budget by 10%. The $87.1 million raided from the Clean Energy Fund is still troubling, even though it is an improvement over past years. DEP needs more funding so that we have enough people to do the many jobs of the agency, including re-writing the rules Gov. Christie rolled back. A lack of testing and oversight has put New Jersey at risk, especially when it comes to lead in the drinking water. We are running out of money in the State Revolving Fund for water infrastructure. The proposed budget still has a lot of money being diverted, close to $200 million. Operations are down by $27 million. This could mean cuts and layoffs, or further attrition where people don’t get hired. DEP is supposed to hire over 110 people and replace those who have retired.
“This budget continues to target our environment, as well as urban areas that suffer the most from pollution. They are grabbing about $200 million in fees, fines and other funds. $19 million is being raided from the Hazardous Discharge Fund, and $17.5 million from the Hazardous Discharge Spill Act, money that should go toward brownfields cleanup. That’s money that should be going to urban areas for pollution cleanup and is instead being shipped out to the wealthy suburbs. The problem isn’t the money coming into DEP. That hasn’t changed much. What has changed is the money being diverted for other purposes, and it’s our urban areas that are suffering the most because of that. We’re taking money away from Newark and Linden and places that have been damaged and instead using it to plug a black hole in the budget. As the state budget grows, the DEP budget declines. 15 years ago the DEP budget was $516 million, yet now, even with inflation and rising salaries we are down to $318 million.
“There are bills currently moving that we are concerned will have a major impact on the budget. One bill, A4578(Land)/ S3110 (Smith) will spend $50 million from the Exxon settlement that is supposed to be spent on the environment. They can’t take that money anymore, so they’re spending it in the wrong places. The public was so outraged by the Exxon sellout that they constitutionally prevented the NRD money from being stolen. That money should go to the people who have suffered injuries from Exxon, in communities like Newark, Bayonne and Paulsboro, not for planting trees in the Pinelands. Those affected by Exxon have been impacted twice by pollution and dumping and now a third time by diverting funding for clean-up and restoration projects. There is a committee working on NRD right now on solutions for cities and towns affected.
“Money for open space is increasing, but the priorities are wrong for constitutionally dedicated CBT revenues for FY2020 in bill S2920 (Smith). For years state parks and parks in urban areas have been significantly underfunded. We wanted the new money to fix that problem. This money is supposed to go to fix those parks, however we are very concerned that instead of putting that money where it should be it is instead going to nonprofits and stewardship in wealthy suburban areas so they can build butterfly gardens in Harding Township. We need to make sure there is capital set aside for state parks, parks in urban areas, open space and improvements. We need these funds because there are massive backlogs and parks are falling apart without improvements for years. Voters have dedicated monies for capital repairs and improvements, yet we have a $250 million backlog in emergency parks capital repairs. By 2015 it was supposed to be $30 million a year. Instead, we’re only seeing $9 million a year.
“Staff cuts coming without any real new hiring at DEP will only expand privatizing and outsourcing of DEP programs. The agency barely has enough people to do its job now, with 2,500 full-time staff. That compares to 3,400 in 2008, and 4,400 in the mid-1990s. We had 1,014 people in parks 15 years ago. Now we are down to 400. The parks budget is 40% lower while we have 40% more open space. DEP is expanding site LSRP site remediation, privatizing water and air programs and hiring outside engineers and consultants. The Murphy administration is already looking at how public assets could be monetized. New Jersey should not be selling off parks to fix the pension system. Privatizing DEP operations and parks is a slippery slope when it comes to protecting the environment.
“There are some parts of the budget not as bad as we have seen in the past. $87.1 million will be taken from the Clean Energy Fund, mostly to help NJ Transit. This is an improvement over the raids on the Clean Energy Fund we have seen over the past decade. Christie took over $1.5 billion at one point and Governor Murphy took $160 million last year. There is now a lot more money going towards energy efficiency and potential EV infrastructure.
“NJ Transit is turning the corner and finally starting to get better. The agency installed positive train controls and Governor Murphy signed the NJT Oversight bill into law. The budget adds $100 million in funding, relying largely on $81 million in Clean Energy money for operations, however NJ Transit is taking $460 million out of its capital for operations. The budget increase for NJ Transit is just 1 percent. A $25 million increase will not get people to work any faster. The funding approach to NJ Transit is unsustainable, and will make it more difficult to start rebuilding our transit system from the inside out and wake up NJ Transit riders from their nightmare of a commute. The Clean Energy diversion is also another regressive tax, money that is supposed to go to people for weatherization and energy efficiency.
“Even though this year’s budget overall is better than last year’s, we still need to stop these raids and cuts for vital programs that affect our land, our air, our water, and cleanup of toxic sites. We need to fix our aging infrastructure, put more money into transit, and remove lead from our homes and schools. We need DEP’s budget to be restored. To get there, we need to make the wealthy pay their fair share while holding polluters accountable. Last year’s temporary tax hike on the very rich helped bring down raids to the Clean Energy Fund by over 40%, but we need a real millionaire’s tax and we must close tax loopholes for EDA money to finally stop the cuts and diversions. We need to stand together so there is a healthy environment for all New Jersey.