Christie Short on Capitol Renovation Details as Workers BootedBy
Sagging building needs renovations as state strapped for cash
‘Why the secrecy?’ says lawmaker kept waiting for documents
Governor Chris Christie is pushing ahead with a $300 million state capitol renovation he won’t be in office to see completed, even while withholding financial details from lawmakers who say cash-strapped New Jersey can’t afford such spending.
The four-year project is set to start in less than three months, and already a shift to temporary quarters has begun for hundreds of state employees in Trenton. Christie, meanwhile, has disclosed scant information on his plan’s logistics and finances, and his administration has delayed public-records requests for scope and cost breakdowns.
Other states’ efforts to modernize their halls of democracy, rife with hidden rot and funky plumbing, have hit unexpected bumps. Oklahoma borrowed $122 million for its capitol renovations, only to see the price double. In Kansas, the work took 13 years and $325 million, with initial estimates increasing as contractors uncovered shoddy fixes made decades earlier.
New Jersey’s project has its own twist: It’s an election year, and Christie, a second-term Republican, is a lame duck. For his would-be successors, there’s political risk in backing a $300 million financing championed by the state’s least popular governor in 40 years.
“Really?” Kim Guadagno, Christie’s lieutenant governor, says in a campaign video about the $300 million expense. “At a time when we have the highest taxes in the country, we have the highest foreclosure rate in the country, and we still have a million people who go to bed hungry every night?”
Lawmakers, themselves facing Election Day in November, largely agree some amount of improvements are in order. Some, including Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., a Republican, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat running for governor, favor a thorough restoration.
After 11 downgrades by the three major credit-ratings companies under Christie, though, some say New Jersey can’t afford the bill for the Statehouse’s exterior, parts of which date to 1790, plus the interior of a four-story wing that houses the governor’s office and other executive branch staff. The plan also calls for artwork restoration and the creation of an interactive museum and exhibit space.
Senator Raymond Lesniak, an Elizabeth Democrat running for governor, has been trying for months to get financial and other documents about the project from the administration, only to be told to keep waiting.
“Why the secrecy?” Lesniak, 70, said in an interview.
A Christie spokesman, Brian Murray, referred questions about project details to the treasurer’s office. In a March 17 email, treasury spokesman Willem Rijksen said the department and its contractor together came up with the $300 million figure. Information supplied by Rijksen accounted for only $40 million in unspecified work related to information technology, lighting, building management, roof and masonry, plus $55 million for contingencies.
When Christie announced the renovation on Nov. 29, he called the Statehouse “an embarrassment to the people of the state.”
“Any type of tragedy that would happen here, if I didn’t do anything about this, would be both on my watch and on my conscience, and I’m not going to allow either one of those things to happen,” Christie said.
An architectural firm, formerly H2L2 Architects/Planners and now Nelco Architecture Corp. of Philadelphia, was overseeing exterior repairs in 2012 when workers noticed more widespread structural and safety issues. The state starting in 2013 authorized $38 million for emergency work and requested further study from the firm, which led to the $300 million plan.
At a legislative hearing in January, Treasurer Ford Scudder said the administration bypassed the typical procurement process because further examination was considered an “outgrowth” of Nelco’s job underway.
Lesniak, though, said the state should seek more evaluations “to assure the public that this is an open, fair process.” An architect, Michael Hanrahan, told lawmakers that if the plan were put to bid, a pool of firms “can come up with different proposals that are going to save the taxpayers money.”
It may be too late.
Already, some executive offices have moved to state-owned space elsewhere. Media outlets that rent bureaus on the Statehouse’s Press Row, including Bloomberg, were mailed notices in March ending their leases effective June 30. A dozen double-hung windows, loose in their frames, have been boarded up.
Democratic candidate for governor Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive and ex-U.S. ambassador to Germany, said the project demands transparency so taxpayers know what “they’re actually going to be stuck paying.” Another candidate, Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, called the project “irresponsible fiscal policy.”
Christie will finance the project with debt issued by the state Economic Development Authority. The state’s rating on $37 billion of bonds was downgraded for the 11th time under Christie on March 27 by Moody’s Investors Service. Analysts, who graded the debt four steps above junk, cited a worsening pension shortfall and Christie-enacted tax cuts that will reduce revenue by $1.1 billion by fiscal 2021.
Guadagno, the lieutenant governor vying for Christie’s job, has suggested forming a foundation to solicit donations for the overhaul.
Colorado relied on donations, plus borrowing and gambling revenue, for a four-year restoration of its gilded capitol dome that reopened in 2014. North Carolina in 1976 established its State Capitol Society, which has funded research and art and furnishings restoration. Idaho formed a nine-member commission to oversee its capitol renovations.
“We issued bonds for the entire amount and we increased the cigarette tax just enough to pay for that in seven years,” said Joseph Stegner, 67, a former Republican state senator who served on the commission.
In New Jersey, Bloomberg’s public-records request for the procurement specifications, contract and other documents yielded information about earlier statehouse work and an overview of the executive wing’s poor condition, with no detail on fixes and costs. In response to a second request, the treasury said it would respond by April 24.
Lesniak, the lawmaker running for governor, had the same experience.
“We do know there are safety and security needs that have to be taken care of,” Lesniak said. “That’s certainly not $300 million.”