N.J. Democrats Seek to Sidestep Christie on Climate Group

Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature are looking to get around Republican Governor Chris Christie again, this time to rejoin a regional pollution-reduction program he withdrew from in 2011.

A measure passed by a Senate committee today would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment requiring the state to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state carbon-trading cooperative that New Jersey helped create in 2005. Christie, who took office in 2010, called the program a failure and has twice resisted legislative efforts to rejoin it.

Democrats, who control both legislative houses, are using a tactic they successfully employed in November, when they asked voters to support a minimum-wage increase Christie vetoed. That measure, which also appeared on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, passed with 61 percent support even as Christie was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote.

“This is the course of last resort,” Senator Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat from Elizabeth, said in an interview. “This is for when all other efforts have failed and we’ve reached an impasse with the governor.”

The Senate Environment Committee, with three Democrats and two Republicans, voted 4-1 today to advance the measure. The resolution must be approved twice by a simple majority of the full legislature within a calendar year, or once by a three-fifths vote, to appear on the ballot, Lesniak said.

Global Warming

New Jersey had already reached reduction targets for greenhouse-gas emissions, and the program failed to accomplish its goal of motivating companies to cut pollution, Christie said when he announced the withdrawal in May 2011. The governor has said he believes global warming is occurring and humans are playing a role in it, a matter of debate among many of his fellow Republicans.

The state won’t allow new coal-fired power plants and will seek to increase solar- and wind-energy production, Christie said at the time.

Michael Drewniak, his spokesman, didn’t return an e-mail or telephone call today seeking comment on the resolution.

Lesniak and Senator Bob Smith, a Democrat from Piscataway, say that carbon emissions are causing global warming, which threatens a state with 127 miles (204 kilometers) of coastline. Smith, chairman of the environment committee, said the effect of climate change was evident when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in October 2012, causing $30 billion of damage in New Jersey.

Hook, Crook

Under the resolution, any revenue received by the state from being part of the cooperative would be dedicated to clean-energy and greenhouse gas-reduction programs.

Policy matters such as the carbon pact have “no business being embedded in our state constitution,” said Mike Proto, communications director for the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an organization that espouses lower taxes and less government intervention.

“These are matters for our elected leaders and the governor to hash out in the legislative process,” Proto said in testimony before the Senate panel. “The purpose of our state constitution is to provide a framework of how government operates and to delineate rights of citizens, not to enact the majority’s policy agenda.”

Strong Governor

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, a Republican from Westfield, said he can envision situations in which quick action is needed to alter the policy, yet altering the constitution is a long process.

“Why would you go and tie your hands?” Bramnick said in an interview. “In order to avoid a strong governor and veto, they’re going to the constitution to change things that should be done legislatively. It’s dangerous.”

Matt Hale, professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, said inserting policy matters into the basic document of governing sets a dangerous precedent.

“If you keep going back to the well, the bucket gets much easier to lift,” Hale said in an interview. “The bar gets lowered for what should be in the constitution.”

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