Christie keeps Sweeney and McCormac happy as power plant bill awaits his signature

TRENTON – However you want to apply the term, in energy or politics: it’s called a power grid. 

A bill that would enable power plant construction in Woodbridge and West Deptford while zapping energy ratepayers statewide with a surcharge for 15 years provides a view into the inner mechanics of Gov. Chris Christie’s political relations with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac and the building and construction trades council.

Quietly derided by some of the same senators who lined up to pass it 21-6 on Monday, the legislation would generate jobs and arguably enhance the election year fortunes of a mayor seeking a monster ratable in Central Jersey and a labor-backed Senate president in South Jersey, say critics. But it amounts to bad public policy for virtually everyone else.

“This is one of the worst pieces of legislation done in the worst ways I’ve ever seen,” Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club, said of A3442. “It was done for one legislator and then they kept making it worse. It was bad, then it became disgraceful. It says if you come in under this bill you’re guaranteed 100% return on your investment. It will cost the consumers $2 billion in a hidden tax and probably another $2 billion over the long-term as natural gas prices drop. This is special interests flexing their muscles.”

McCormac doesn’t disagree that his town would benefit, but that’s why he’s the mayor of Woodbridge.

“The bill will allow a company (Competitive Power Ventures of Maryland) to go forward with a project that will create 600 construction jobs, 25 permanent jobs, and several million dollars worth of ratables to our town,” he told PolitickerNJ

Fashioned by Sweeney and specifically tailored as a power grid gift to his district, the original bill increased the amount of allowable power plant generation to 1,000 megawatts. When Christie intervened and upped that to 2,000 megawatts, Trenton watchers learned that Middlesex County had an angle.

A friend of Christie’s from the other side of the aisle who served as one of two Democrats on Christie’s gubernatorial transition team, McCormac had long been in conversations with Competitive Power Ventures and didn’t want Sweeney’s South Jersey deal with LS Power of Pennsylvania to ice his own. A source said McCormac got on the phone and worked with Christie and Sweeney.

Notoriously adept at lining up Republican senators, Christie on Monday made certain the requisite number of GOP green votes lit up for the 2,000 megawatt bill. Sources say the Woodbridge mayor prodded Middlesex Democrats to combine with the bulk South Jersey vote delivered by Sweeney to provide overwhelming force from the other side. Lobbied by the Essex-based PSE&G to oppose the bill, the Democratic delegation from Essex still lined up with party leadership.

Sweeney wanted it done, and sources say Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) didn’t didn’t want a fight in her caucus between a power bloc of South Jersey/Middlesex and everyone else. So she made it happen.

When the bill hit the floor of the senate on Monday, six senators voted no with 13 not voting. The Assembly passed the measure 57-15.

From the start, Democratic Party caucus members described Sweeney as an immovable force on the issue. He wanted the power plant and 600 plue jobs for West Deptford, and the governor helped him, even though no Republican would boast that it was a good idea. Bottom line: the governor told them to vote for it, say sources, and they overwhelmingly voted for it.

“Why would they do this in 2011, an election year – a vote to put an increase on the fees every ratepayer will have to pay, to pay for these plants?” one source fretted.

If Christie signs the bill into law, all three men would build some love with labor, no surprise with two Democrats welded by definition into the political infrastructure of the union movement, but more of a newsflash with Christie, a Republican governor who continues to chop into a Democratic base.   

William T. Mullen, president of the New Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council, avidly supports the bill and expects the governor’s signature.

“Almost any construction is good at this point,” he said. “We would build a telephone booth if it meant putting people to work.”

Sources say Christie simultaneously bulks up his cred in Midddlesex County, the classic Democratic Party stronghold where he defeated Jon Corzine in 2009 by 7,000 votes, and in South Jersey, specifically Sweeney’s swing district.

Among those lawmakers critical of the bill is Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark) of Essex County, a no vote Monday who wants the governor to reverse course.

“This is worst possible way to create jobs,” he said. “Government should not be interfering in the energy market. In the long-term, this will hurt ratepayers.”

Coutinho said he hopes the governor vetoes the legislation.

“This is happening because the governor wants it to happen,” he said. “I would hope cooler heads would prevail. Let Jersey-based power plants bid on this instead of rewarding two out-of-state companies to move ahead. This will hurt PSE&G, which employs 10,000 New Jersey workers.”

Christie Press Secretary Michael Drewniak would not comment on the legislation. It is now under review in counsel’s office.

Christie keeps Sweeney and McCormac happy as power plant bill awaits his signature