NJ Senators Sue to Stop Christie’s State House Renovation

State Sen. Ray Lesniak. Max Pizarro for Observer

A bipartisan trio of state senators filed a lawsuit on Monday seeking to stop Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to renovate the state house, arguing that it violates spending and debt restraints in the state constitution and puts taxpayers on the hook for up to $750 million.

Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Democrat running for governor, filed the lawsuit along with Sens. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) and Michael Doherty (R-Warren).

“It shows that this is not political,” Lesniak said. “You have a super-progressive like me, a super-conservative like Doherty, a middle-of-the-roader like Kip Bateman. We’re protecting the public’s interest, the taxpayers’ interest, and Governor Christie is not.”

Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Bateman’s district-mate and a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, said that his office was reviewing the paperwork Monday morning but that he expects to join the lawsuit in his capacity as a state legislator.

“I have a responsibility to my 200,000 constituents,” said Ciattarelli, a critic of the state house renovation plan.

Christie has proposed a $300 million renovation for the executive wing of the state house in Trenton, which dates to 1792 and has become cramped on the inside, dilapidated on the outside, and a safety hazard for some employees and visitors.

To finance the renovation, the state Economic Development Authority approved $300 million in bonds last week, covering a period of up to 30 years. State Treasurer Ford Scudder estimated at a recent budget hearing that borrowing costs could run from $20 million to $25 million a year during the lifespan of the bonds.

In their lawsuit, Bateman, Doherty and Lesniak said the arrangement violates the debt-limitation clause and the appropriations clause of the state constitution. It also violates the separation of powers, they argued, because the EDA has no independent revenue stream to pay off the renovation debt, which means taxpayers ultimately are on the hook through the state budget drafted by lawmakers every year.

“The transaction effectively places future legislatures under duress to annually appropriate funds to pay the debt service since the failure to appropriate the funds will dramatically affect the state’s credit rating to the detriment of taxpayers,” the lawsuit reads.

All major debt issues must be approved in New Jersey by voters under the terms of a constitutional amendment adopted in 2008, known as the “Lance amendment” after its author, Leonard Lance, who is now a congressman. But the Christie administration argues that the EDA has authority to issue the bonds under a state statute enacted before 2008.

The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services agreed in a memo issued last week and obtained by the Observer on Monday.

Jason Krajewski, legislative counsel for the office, wrote in the May 12 memo that “it appears that the state may still rely on law enacted prior to the December 4, 2008, effective date of the Lance amendment which would allow the state to incur debt, backed by an annual appropriation, to fund the renovations of the state house.”

State courts have never interpreted the Lance amendment, he added, but its “plain language” shows that it “is a prospective prohibition rather than a retroactive prohibition.”

The senators filed their lawsuit in Superior Court in Mercer County, seeking an injunction to stop the bond sale. Some state house offices already have been vacated, paintings and portraits have been hauled out in recent days, and some demolition work is scheduled to begin in the summer. But Lesniak said he expected that the EDA bond sale would be put on hold while the lawsuit is pending.

“They’ve created a legal fiction to get around legislative approval, and more importantly, scrutiny by the public,” Lesniak said.

He added that the Legislature already had approved $38 million for safety repairs. “Why shouldn’t it stop there?” Lesniak said.

“While the law is clear that the plan to borrow $300 million to fund the state house renovation must be approved by both voters and the Legislature, the governor’s convoluted and unconstitutional financing arrangement takes that choice away from both taxpayers and their elected representatives,” Doherty said.

Bateman said “the governor knows the public would never support this project, which is why everything was done to limit transparency and public participation in the approval process.”

Christie’s spokesman referred questions about the lawsuit to the state Attorney General’s Office, which did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The renovation plan has become a favorite punching bag for gubernatorial candidates from both parties. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, has been a fiery critic all year.

“We have much bigger priorities in New Jersey than this,” she said in a statement last week, adding that Christie “should allow the next governor to fully vet this project, study the true costs and make an informed decision because of the huge long-term ramifications for the state and its finances.”

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat running for governor, called the deal “a complicated shell game to saddle New Jersey taxpayers with a half billion dollars in additional debt we cannot afford.”

“Like the street sweepers following a circus parade, New Jersey’s next governor will be left with the responsibility of cleaning up the mess Chris Christie has left behind after eight years in office,” he said.

Update (5:39 p.m.): The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services wrote in a memo last week that, in its opinion, the EDA has the authority to bond the $300 million for the state house renovation without obtaining voter approval. This story has been updated.