NJ State House Renovations Won’t Begin During Legal Battle

The state house in Trenton. File photo

Attorneys for Gov. Chris Christie told two state judges today that demolition and construction work for a $300 million state house renovation would not begin until after a court hearing scheduled for June 14.

A bipartisan band of state legislators who have filed lawsuits to stop the renovation in recent days — Sens. Kip Bateman, Mike Doherty and Ray Lesniak, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski — went to court Thursday seeking a temporary restraining order. Demolition work was scheduled to begin this weekend, Wisniewski argued for the foursome, requiring urgent action by the courts.

But in a letter to Superior Court judges Mary Jacobson and Paul Innes today, Christie’s lawyers said the only work scheduled for today were “tests, not demolition.” The lawmakers then withdrew their request for a restraining order.

“The court did not grant injunctive relief and the state did not agree to delay construction, even by one day,” said Treasury Department spokesman Willem Rijksen. “At today’s hearing, the state confirmed to the court no irreversible construction work is scheduled until after our June 14 court date for oral arguments.”

Christie says the state house renovation is badly needed, but the plan has become a political piñata for Democrats and Republicans.

On top of the $300 million cost, interest payments could figure in the $20 million to $25 million range annually for the next 30 years, according to rough estimates from the administration. And the state is bonding an extra $75 million to buy out a lease that was already held on the capitol by the New Jersey Building Authority.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno at a debate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination on Thursday night said she would cancel Christie’s plan “so fast it’d make your head spin.” Wisniewski is a candidate for the Democratic nomination.

Lesniak, another candidate for the Democratic nomination, said that by holding off on major construction work until the court hearing, lawmakers would have enough time to ensure “that Governor Christie doesn’t continue to go at breakneck speed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these renovations while bypassing the Legislature and taxpayers.”

Christie’s lawyers said they have no case because the Economic Development Authority already sold the $300 million in bonds for the restoration project. The sale closed hours after the EDA board voted to authorize it on May 11.

The state Attorney General’s Office assigned one of its top lawyers to Christie’s team, Jean Reilly, an assistant attorney general who has successfully argued multibillion-dollar pension and cost-of-living adjustment cases at the state Supreme Court for the governor.

Wisniewski argued “that the process for issuing the bonds was constitutionally defective because it violated the debt limitation clause,” which requires major debt issues to be approved by the Legislature and voters, she wrote. “However, the bonds have been issued, and that claim is moot.”

Wisniewski’s most recent filing, which was “devoid of any attempt to demonstrate likelihood of success on the merits of his moot complaint, evidences nothing more than a mere policy disagreement concerning the scope of the renovation of the state house,” Reilly wrote.

NJ State House Renovations Won’t Begin During Legal Battle