- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - In addition to Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s successor, New Jersey voters will get to weigh in on whether damages from natural resources lawsuits should go only toward environmental cleanups.

New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature advanced the proposed constitutional amendment this week with more than three-fifths support, ensuring the question would be on the 2017 ballot, when residents will pick the next governor.

The issue gained traction after the Christie administration settled a lawsuit with ExxonMobil for $225 million after more than a decade of litigation involving petroleum plants in Bayonne and Linden as well as gas stations across the state.

A closer look at the proposed amendment:

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SO, WHAT ARE VOTERS CONSIDERING?

Voters will be asked whether they want to use all the money from natural resources damages to “repair, restore, replace or preserve” the state’s natural resources. Lawmakers and supporters of the legislation say the amendment would create a constitutional dedication for the funds that would prevent future governors and lawmakers from using damages. The vote comes in the same year residents will be picking Christie’s successor. The two-term governor will be out office in January 2018.

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WHAT HAPPENS TO FUNDS NOW?

Under current law, $50 million of natural resources damages go toward site cleanup, with most of the proceeds from a natural resources settlement go to the state’s general fund. Some of the cash also goes toward attorneys’ fees. The proposed amendment preserves the state’s ability to use the proceeds to pay attorneys, but changes the requirement that just $50 million go toward cleanup. Instead, most of the money would go toward remediation.

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WHY IS THIS NECESSARY?

New Jersey’s legacy of industrial pollution dates far back, and the state today has more Superfund sites than any other. New Jersey’s effort at recouping money from polluters has recently begun to see results, with the Christie administration announcing a $190 million settlement with Occidental Chemical Corp. in 2014 as part of the Passaic River contamination lawsuits that overall totaled $355 million. Then, in 2015 the administration announced the $225 million settlement with ExxonMobil, but the deal came after the state earlier claimed damages to be nearly $9 billion. The relatively low figure the state agreed to, coupled with the state’s law that only $50 million would have to go toward cleanup motivated lawmakers to pursue the proposal.

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BUT WILL THE PROPOSED AMENMDENT CHANGE THE EXXON DEAL?

It’s not clear. The state has not collected the $225 million yet since the proposal is being appealed by environmental groups and a Democratic state senator. The treasurer has told lawmakers that the money is sitting in an escrow account, but that it won’t be paid out to the state until the appeals process is finished.

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HOW MANY CASES AND HOW MUCH MONEY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?

The exact number will vary from year to year and administration to administration, but in fiscal year 2017 the Department of Environmental reported nine cases that were either settled and on appeal or being negotiated. The potential damages totaled about $240 million, with the lion’s share accounted for by the Exxon deal.

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