Proposed constitutional amendments before Environment Committee

TRENTON – It worked for increasing the minimum wage.

Democrats may have found a detour around potential gubernatorial vetoes: Let the voters decide.

On Thursday, three proposed constitutional amendments will be before the Senate Environment Committee on issues that have drawn front office and/or legislative opposition.

Two similar resolutions would change the state Constitution to require participation in the alternative energy cooperative known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.  Gov. Chris Christie pulled New Jersey from the Northeast compact two years ago.

The third proposal would change the Constitution to allocate approximately $200 million a year to preserve open space, farmland and historic sites.

The Democrats, although they control both houses of the Legislature, do not have veto-proof majorities.  In fact, they have never successfully overridden a veto of Christie’s.

Yet this year they were able to increase the minimum wage by $1 to $8.25 and plug in a cost of living clause despite the fact Christie had vetoed a bill that would have hiked the wage to $1.50. They did this by placing a referendum before voters to amend the Constitution. It passed easily.

But is using constitutional amendments a dangerous practice?

Sen. Ray Lesniak, a sponsor of one of the RGGI measures, said amending the Constitution only is reserved for “extremely important issues.’’

“We did it on minimum wage.  This is the only way we can join the rest of the world in combating climate change,’’ he said. “If the governor was willing to change his mind and bring New Jersey back into the 21st century and do something about climate change we wouldn’t need a constitutional amendment.’’

But one key Republican believes it is risky.

“This approach shows Democrats want to avoid discussing the common sense approach used by Governor Christie in reaching bipartisan agreements,” said Jon Bramnick, the Assembly Minority Leader, in a release.

“Amending the Constitution should be rare. These legislative proposals take us down a dangerous path. Once the Constitution is amended, it is difficult to reverse the process.”

The election season rhetoric over the minimum wage hike constitutional amendment became quite heated this year.  Supporters depicted it as both economically and morally necessary in a state that has one of the highest costs of living.

Opponents blasted both it and its method of adoption. They saw the hike as a dagger in the back of the recovery and the now-constitutionally protected cost of living adjustment as disastrous for businesses down the road.

Opponents argue that amending the Constitution should be done sparingly because of the air of permanence it involves.

Lesniak said that is how it is being used, only for very important matters.

In New Jersey, some legislators see this as their only path to enact what they see as popular initiatives that are opposed by the administration.

In the case of RGGI, Christie yanked New Jersey from the cooperative effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, arguing that market forces were accomplishing what legislated subsidies could not.

In SCR 162, sponsored by Sen. Ray Lesniak, the state would be required to fully participate in RGGI.

It would mandate restoration of the greenhouse gas emissions allowance trading program that was authorized in a 2007 law.

Under SCR 146, sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith, the Constitution would be changed similarly to require participation in RGGI and it would dedicate its revenues to  clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction programs.

Smith was out of state and could not be reached today for comment, but Lesniak said they will work together and iron out the differences.

In SCR 165, also primarily sponsored by Smith, the state would dedicate $200 million, or 2.4 percent of the sales tax in a given year, whichever is less, toward preservation efforts theoretically starting in fiscal year 2015 and for the next 30 years.

The constitutional amendment would create a category specifically for acquisition of flood-prone properties, the so-called Blue Acres program.

Funding for these types of preservation efforts was exhausted this year and the state has not devised a new stream of revenue.

If the resolutions clear committee on Thursday, as expected, and eventually receive a three-fifths vote by the full chambers, which is not as likely, the proposals would be on next year’s ballot.

Otherwise, they would need simple majorities in two successive years in order to go on the ballot.

To get the three-fifths vote, the Democrats would need some Republican help.  During the governor’s first term, the Republican caucuses generally were in lock step with the administration.  But shortly after the election, some Republican senators broke rank to support retention of Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. when his position seemed in danger with the governor over the lack of legislative victories.

Eventual floor votes on these proposed constitutional amendments might be another early test of GOP solidarity in a Christie second term.

Proposed constitutional amendments before Environment Committee