- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The Democratic and Republicans candidates seeking to succeed GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie differ sharply when it comes to environmental issues.

The differences came to the fore when Christie’s Environmental Protection commissioner testified recently about his department’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 before a Democrat-led legislative committee.

Experts say the contrast between Democratic and Republican primary candidates probably comes down to the difference in the parties’ bases.

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THE ISSUE

New Jersey’s legacy of pollution goes back more than 100 years and shows itself today with more than 100 Superfund sites, greater than any other state.

But New Jersey is also a leader in clean energy, with among the largest Clean Energy Funds in the 20 states that have such programs, according to a 2012 Brookings Institute report.

Christie has angered New Jersey’s influential environmental lobby by regularly diverting cash from the state’s Clean Energy Fund, which is financed by a tax on utility bills. For the 2018 fiscal year, Christie is proposing diverting $161 million.

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CANDIDATE PROMISES AND PROPOSALS

The Democrats across the board have put forward fuller plans on the environment. All the Democrats, for example, say they would rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-style compact in which nine Mid-Atlantic and New England states have agreed to cap carbon dioxide emissions and trade the excess in auctions. Christie pulled out of the initiative in 2011, saying it amounted to a tax on utility customers.

Democrats, including front-runner Phil Murphy, former Clinton administration official Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak and Assemblyman John Wisniewski have promised to re-enroll New Jersey if elected.

Murphy regularly ties the state’s economy to environmental initiatives, arguing, for example, that increasing offshore wind energy production will bolster the state’s bottom line. Among his promises on the environment is putting the state on a path toward “100 percent clean energy by 2050.”

The other candidates have made similar promises. Johnson, Lesniak, Murphy and Wisniewski have all also called for opening an office dedicated to climate change within the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Johnson is calling for a tax on carbon, but doesn’t specify how much. Wisniewski alone mentions Trump on his campaign website and vows to push back against the GOP administration’s proposed 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. Lesniak has promised to halt proposed natural gas pipelines in the state.

Republican front-runner Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said in a statement to the Associated Press that she thinks New Jersey should rejoin the greenhouse gas initiative and that generally she favor , a contrast with Christie. Her campaign site, though, doesn’t mention environmental issues. Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli said he would not re-join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Imitative and said he instead favors a 50-state approach to cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

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WHAT EXPERTS SAY

The line between environmental policy and gubernatorial politics can be blurry, and skews in favor of the Democrats in New Jersey.

For example, a number of the state’s leading environmental policy groups have begun to weigh in on the race. Clean Water Action, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have all backed Murphy in the Democratic primary, but not so far in the GOP primary. Debbie Mans, who chairs the league, said a top priority for the next governor should be ending the Clean Energy Fun diversions.

“What’s concerning from an environmental standpoint are there are fees generated,” she said. “And they’re being diverted for other purposes. I think voters realize that.”

Christie’s administration defends the diversions, which include paying for New Jersey Transit and state utility costs as well as park management. Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said the contrast between Democratic primary candidates and Republican primary candidates comes down to the difference in the parties’ bases.

“Democratic primary voters care much more than Republican primary voters do in general about environmental issues,” she said.

She added that Republicans might be reluctant to alienate businesses, which are a core constituency typically and who generally opposes tighter environmental regulations.

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This is the eighth in a weekly series that will look at issues facing New Jersey ahead of the June 6 primary. The general election is Nov. 7.

Follow Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini.


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