New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust

On Monday a New Jersey Assembly panel advanced a bill that would require local governments and authorities wanting to use New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust funds for projects costing $1 million or more to first obtain a financing cost estimate from the trust.

The Assembly Environment and Waste Committee unanimously approved an amended version of A1649, which was introduced Jan. 27 and marks the latest effort to expand the trust’s oversight of local spending.

“The estimate will enable the local government unit to evaluate, and other interested parties to consider, the potential savings of financing and interest costs offered by trust financing compared to other available methods of financing the project,” the bill statement reads.

The amended version exempts local governments from the requirement if an infrastructure project was approved by ordinance or resolution prior to the bill getting signed into law and also reduces the time frame in which the trust must provide the estimate from 15 days to five.

Sponsored by Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, who is the committee’s chair, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, and Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer, D-Bergen and Passaic, the legislation drew support from the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey and the Laborers International Union of North America.

Ciro Scalera, the government affairs director for the union, thanked the committee for modifying the bill after hearing from its detractors, such as the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

Under the bill, the NJEIT must provide an online form for the financing cost estimate. Local governments may be asked to provide additional information concerning the project and borrower, including a detailed description of the project, design, engineering and environmental information; a cost estimate prepared by the project engineer or other qualified person; information regarding the borrower; and the amount to be financed.

The legislation has been in the works for two years,.

An initial version introduced by the Assembly in July 2014 received 69-7 approval from that chamber in March after review by its Environment and Solid Waste Committee. The Senate introduced a version in September 2014, left that house’s Environment and Energy Committee along with some amendments.

Both bills were referred to, but never advanced from, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

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New Jersey Legislation & Regulation Watch For 2016

New Jersey’s weakened gaming industry, workforce pressures and vulnerable environment have driven legislative developments in recent months, giving interested folks plenty of pending bills to watch in 2016.

Atlantic City, the state’s only constitutionally-allowed gaming revenue resource, has suffered  from casino bankruptcies, closures and competition, driving lawmakers to consider tax incentives that would boost the resort town, along with a proposal to geographically expand the market share of casinos.

Casino employees, some of whom have gone on strike in the past year, represent just one industry characterized by a labor pool that wants a better work-life balance. Lawmakers have heeded their calls with legislation that has drawn objections from a recession weary business sector still struggling to cope with ongoing economic uncertainty.

On the natural resources front, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed changes to rules governing the state’s flood hazard areas have riled conservationists who fear the updates lessen protections and pander to developers.

Here’s a summary of critical legislation and regulation that could affect significant  New Jersey State changes in 2016:

Atlantic City Fiscal Recovery Package

Pinning their hopes on reviving Atlantic City, lawmakers are continuing to push a financial incentive package spearheaded by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and Sen. Jim Whalen, D-Atlantic.

Three of the bills have passed both houses of the Legislature as of the Assembly’s Dec. 17 voting session and are awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s signature. The anchor of the proposal, A3981, calls for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan to stabilize the town’s fiscal health.  A3984 would reallocate a casino tax that’s being used for redevelopment projects to help the city pay debt service on municipal bonds, and A3985 would drop a five-year obligation to use casino revenue for marketing purposes so those funds can be redirected to the city.

In November, Christie signed into law another part of the package, A3983, that would provide additional state money to the city’s struggling public schools, but implemented an  absolute veto to A3982, that would have required casinos to provide proof they are providing “suitable” health care and retirement benefits to employees.

Constitutional Amendment to Expand Gambling

Looking beyond Atlantic City, lawmakers are considering  advisiability of  casinos in the Meadowlands and the Monmouth Park racetrack.  Legislation would reverse the state’s constitutional restriction, and the topic could be left up to voters.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Dec. 17 approved Sweeney’s SCR185, that would pose the question of non-Atlantic City gaming in a public referendum next November, while the Assembly passed a twin version of the bill on to that house’s Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee.

The legislation would make for a “potentially huge” expansion of the New Jersey’s gaming industry, although the passage of a constitutional amendment is difficult to predict given the expected high turnout due to the presidential election.

Supporting New Jersey Families Act

Casino employees and the state’s labor force in general also stand to get a boost from pending legislation aiming to improve work-life balance and increase paid time off. Along with legislation that would help displaced casino workers prepare to re-enter the workplace, lawmakers are also considering a family-geared legislation package that was unveiled in May by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen. The Supporting New Jersey Families Act, which has yet to undergo committee review, would require employers in all industries to provide shift workers with predictable schedules and time off to attend school activities, expand state employee family leave privileges and establish a commission to do a gender pay disparity study. The bills have twin legislation in the Assembly.

The first prong of Weinberg’s package, the Schedules that Work Act, S2933, provides a private right of action for employees seeking to change their work schedules.

Paid Sick Leave

Among the most controversial legislatative actions are those advocating for employees is the proposed Paid Sick Leave Law, S785 and A2354, under which workers would get the better of five to nine sick days or more generous packages provided under local laws.

The Senate bill, also sponsored by Weinberg, got full approval in Dec. 17, while the Assembly version is poised for a second reading by the chamber. That bill counts Assembly members Pamela R. Lampitt, D-Camden, Shavonda E. Sumter, D-Passaic, Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, Jerry Green, D-Passaic, and Benjie E. Wimberly, D-Bergen-Passaic as primary sponsors.

During a Senate committee hearing in June, the legislation was hailed by unions, think tanks and groups such as the New Jersey Working Families Alliance. Business-centered organizations, such as the New Jersey Farm Bureau and the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, criticized  the administrative and expense ramifications.

Given New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s previous opposition to mandated sick leave, the future of the legislation remains uncertain, since in the aggregate, the  legislative proposals would create new administrative burdens on employers, including smaller businesses and start-ups, and increase the risk of litigation as traditional employer prerogatives are legislatively  prescribed.

Flood Hazard Area Rules

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s planned changes to flood hazard area rules, announced in June drew not only a backlash from environmentalists but twin bills proposed explicitly to overturn the changes. They are presently pending public comment.

Among the biggest changes in store is the increase in the amount of vegetation in riparian zones — where regulated water meets land — that can be disturbed for construction, and the extension of that allowed disturbance to building projects that would normally require a hardship exemption.

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, D-Union, served as a primary sponsor of SCR180 that received full Senate approval in October and is pending before the Assembly. Identical legislation, ACR249, was introduced in November by Assemblyman John F. McKeon, D-Morris, and Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, D-Essex. Both bills have been advanced by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.

These rules affect virtually all development in all sectors across the state, and also serve as one of the state’s few points of leverage over federally authorized projects, like pipelines and utility facilitiesThese rules also dictate rebuilding and resiliency policy in and near flood prone areas. The impact would reach beyond the shore to industrial sites, many in low-lying areas along New Jersey Rivers.

Where the state goes on these issue affects not only environmental quality but also the value of properties, and the costs and likelihood of future business expansion.

NJ DEP Looks To Ease Permitting In Flood Hazard Areas

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration on Monday announced regulatory changes for development in flood hazard areas that would streamline permitting and reduce restrictions on construction near surface waters, among other revisions that some environmentalists argue would harm waterways and flood prevention efforts.

Officials with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said the “common sense” changes to its rules under the Flood Hazard Area Control Act are part of the administration’s broader efforts to cut red tape and denied that they represent a rollback in ecological or flood mitigation protections. The DEP will field public comments on the proposed revisions, which were part of the state Register on Monday and separately announced by the department, through July 31.

“Our streams and rivers provide the state with many benefits, but many aspects of the way the rules are currently structured have not achieved their stated goals,” DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement. “These rule changes will correct those problems while maintaining our high standards for protection of our waterways and mitigation of flooding.”

The amendments addressed in a 936-page notice from the DEP include converting six existing general permits to a new category of permits — general permits-by-certification — and another four existing general permits to permits-by-rule.

The new category of permits would allow someone to use an online portal and secure permission for 15 specific activities by making a series of certifications, according to Vincent Mazzei, a supervising environmental engineer with the DEP. The regulator would follow up with an inspection later, Mazzei said. Meanwhile, permits-by-rule cover smaller activities that are automatically entitled to a permit, according to Mazzei.

Requirements for so-called riparian zones — where regulated waters meet land — would also see changes.

The DEP said it wants to increase the total amount of vegetation that can be disturbed for roadways, utility lines, buildings and other projects to better reflect the department’s permitting experiences. The department also wants to increase the area of riparian zone vegetation that can be disturbed as part of activities that don’t harm their overall functionality, including work within roadway or utility easements.

Additionally, the proposal would free more applicants from having to request hardship exceptions when strict compliance with riparian zone limits would create an undue hardship. Site remediation projects, landfill closures and other construction activities not addressed in the existing rules would see allowances for riparian zone disturbances, while applicants would no longer need a hardship exception if they can show that a project “cannot feasibly meet the limits on riparian zone disturbance.”

In those cases, an applicant would have to prove that there’s no practicable alternative and take steps to mitigate disturbances, according to Mazzei.

Also on the table is the repeal of 300-foot “special water resource protection areas” under the state’s stormwater management rules. Reconciling the requirements for those areas with separate 300-foot riparian zones that the flood hazard rules establish for ecologically significant waters and certain tributaries has created confusion for regulators and the regulated community alike, the department said. Moving forward, the DEP wants to create a hybrid buffer with uniform standards that apply to the same set of surface waters.

The department itself highlighted a proposal to hand off the enforcement of soil erosion and sediment control standards to local Soil Conservation Districts when it comes to areas with highly acidic soils. Those areas largely run parallel to the New Jersey Turnpike corridor in the central and southern parts of the state, according to the DEP.

The changes aren’t sitting well with some in the environmental community. The new permitting standards would slash important oversight, while certain protections for high quality streams would be eliminated, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

“In a state so devastated by flooding, the DEP is heading in the wrong direction,” Tittel said in a statement. “We should be adding protections to protect people and property, instead we are weakening them putting more people and protect in harm’s way. These rules are an attack on clean water and make NJ will be vulnerable to the next flood and future damages.”

The revised rules received a warmer reception from the New Jersey Builders Association, which welcomed changes such as the proposed consolidation of stormwater management and flood hazard rules.

“The proposal is another initiative by the department to organize, align, and standardize the underlying permitting rules for a significant and complex land use program,” the association said in a statement.