As the pace at the State House slows to a trickle, there is an interesting side story about Ray Lesniak’s COAH bill, S-1.
S-1 abolishes COAH. But it also does a lot more including a requirement that 10% of new development be set aside for low and moderate income housing. Of course that has modifications and loopholes that housing advocates say render the 10% figure useless…but that’s a whole other debate which is way too complicated for me to tackle in this post.
Here is what S-1 also does: eliminates a 2.5% fee on commercial development. Right now, there is a moratorium on that fee but it’s set to expire July 1. Well, The Senate with Lesniak’s prodding, already passed S-1. The assembly has not. And from what I am told they will not before the end of the fiscal year. Housing and Local Government Committee Chairman Assemblyman Jerry Green told me last week that their offices got flooded with calls protesting S-1…especially since critics were not allowed to testify during the Senate Committee hearings. Green has promised a slower more deliberative process in the lower house…in other words he is in no hurry to pass the bill to meet Lesniak and Governor Christie’s timeline ( yes, btw – the Governor also wants S-1 passed ASAP ).
Green and others say the votes simply are not yet there in the Assembly. And they are proposing a separate piece of legislation to extend the moratorium on the fee. But Senator Sweeney told me Thursday that is a non-starter. He says the Assembly needs to pass S-1. There will be no extension.
Reached by telephone Democratic State Committee Chairman John Wisniewski ( who is hoping a development project in Sayreville goes forward this Summer without the fee ) said about trying to force a vote on S-1 in the Assembly, “This is the philosophy of Governor Christie, and I am not sure we should be embracing that. It doesn’t make for good government.”
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Years ago, “lawyer” was a dirty word. The mere mention prompted eyes rolls and groans. Today, That word is “lobbyist.” There is no greater enemy of the public than “lobbyists” and “special interests” who desperately want to squander your hard-earned tax dollars.
In fact, when someone gets labeled a “lobbyist,” the damage can be irreversible. In a more extreme case it’s like calling someone a “racist” or a “deadbeat dad.” Conversation over, because there is just no recovering from that.
When Christie decided to go after authorities, boards and commissions he honed in on their lobbying practices which in fairness sound a bit outrageous. As the Governor pointed out Tuesday, it seems a bit convoluted for government agencies to pay lobbyists to lobby government.
But lobbyists naturally have a different view. They argue that Trenton can be a bit of a maze, and without getting someone to look after your interests, it is more than likely you’ll get lost in the shuffle. That is particularly true for some of the smaller authorities ( amongst the 700 that exist ) which are trying to secure precious state dollars in today’s belt-tightening environment. After all, “getting attention for anything in Trenton these days is tough.”
And here is the thing…assuming you cut-off these quasi-governmental agencies’ ability to lobby directly via contract they are simply going to hire someone in-house. So, if you’re paying a firm say, 3k a month to lobby, good luck finding a qualified candidate for 60 grand who knows the ins and outs of how Trenton does business.
What was also notable Tuesday was Christie’s shift in tone. Shortly after using the words “we intend to get these authorities under control,” Christie said he looks forward to working with Senator Weinberg ( who has a bill ) and others in the legislature. That is a different approach than the one the Governor took with the COAH EO. At the time, Christie was asked if he would work with Sen. Lesniak ( who has a bill ), and Christie said he would be willing to, but needs to approach the COAH situation on a “separate track.” Of course, we know what happened with the COAH EO ( see previous post ).
So maybe the court’s action and all the “why didn’t you include us” from Democrats on mid-year budge cuts are finally getting through.
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“You can’t just gut COAH via Executive Order.”
That was made clear Friday afternoon when the court ruled that a 90-day suspension cannot take place without oral arguments, and then a ruling.
COAH was created by the legislature as a response to the Court’s Mount Laurel decisions. Thus, it would stand to reason that only the legislature could make substantive changes or even suspend a program that is so entrenched in the culture of Trenton.
So, when Christie attempted to follow through on his campaign pledge, housing advocates sought injunctive relief which they were granted “quite swiftly.” That’s not a good sign for the executive branch being able to effectuate real change here.
“We’re disappointed, obviously.” Said Mike Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman. “Not what we wanted to see.” But they do expect to go forward with the reform recommendations. It just appears now that they’ll need the legislature to do it.
Coupla things here that are interesting. One is that McGreevey ( I don’t still need to preface that name with “Former Governor Jim,” do I? ) tried to alter COAH by granting substantive certifications. In other words, he and Commissioner Susan Bass Levin where granting extensions to towns that failed to comply and the court said basically said “nah-uh.” So, if changing COAH were simple, it probably would have been done already.
Secondly, the lesson again here is that Christie cannot go it alone. He needs the other branches of government to implement real change. That is part of the reason we are in this mess, but on the flip side – the merry-go-round is designed to function slowly and methodically.
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