The implementation of the Tea Party political playbook is in full swing in New Jersey to the delight of developers and polluters. Governor Christie has brought an agenda of broad regulatory rollbacks to Trenton in the name of promoting business, but these policy changes are not about meeting New Jersey's needs or addressing issues impacting the state. Instead these "reforms" are the national environmental agenda of the extreme right, part of a national polluter wishlist to eliminate environmental protections and public safeguards across the country with New Jersey as the guinea pig. Now we are seeing similar initiatives in Maine, Wisconsin, Arizona and Virginia.
Polluter think tanks including the Kato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and American Legislative Exchange Council, are receiving funding from the Tea Party's biggest backers, the Koch brothers of Koch Industries, to devise state level policies to dismantle critical protections. Christie is leading the charge to bring them to fruition. New Jersey has become a laboratory for the polluter agenda and as these dangerous Tea Party policies easily make their way through New Jersey's Statehouse with little Democratic opposition, the playbook is quickly moving to other states.
The Tea Party's gubernatorial candidate in Maine, Paul LePage, took the election on a platform of making the state more business-friendly and cutting back state government. This week Governor LePage announced his plan for Maine to implement the same pro-developer principles already in motion in New Jersey under Christie.
Just as Christie created a Red Tape Review Group, Governor LePage held a series of "Red Tape Workshops" with business community representatives to identify rules and regulations that were hurting business.
The recommendations from the Red Tape panels are all the same: requiring cost-benefit analyses on new regulations, state standards cannot exceed federal regulations, fast-tracking development permits, opening up sensitive environmental areas to development, cutting regulations and diminishing public oversight
A bill requiring state regulations to not exceed federal standards is already making its way through the Legislature of the most densely populated state in the union.
Cost-benefit analyses for new rule proposals has been requested by Maine's Governor but is already being used by New Jersey DEP to put the bottom lines of polluters ahead of essential environmental and public health protections.
Similar to the development fast track bill just passed in New Jersey, LePage wants Maine's DEP to review applications for site development permits within 30 days. The New Jersey bill also requires the Lieutenant Governor and Department of State staff to act on behalf of developers to expedite permit approval.
Tea Party policies aim to remove power from state agencies and hand that authority to administrative law judges instead. A bill out of Christie's Red Tape Review Group sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Burzichelli will make the decisions of administrative law judges final. In Maine, LePage will implement the same measure by disbanding the state's Board of Environmental Protection to have administrative judges hear appeals of Maine DEP decisions. New Jersey has already passed a bill that would allow state agencies to challenge the rules adopted by another agency with an administrative law judge having final say over the disputes and ultimately the agency's rules. Public oversight and transparency are lost in the process and agencies promoting development can challenge rules that protect our environment from more degradation.
Two bills that passed in the Legislature will further promote the polluter agenda by rolling back environmental protections in changes to agency rulemaking. One bill extends rule re-adoption from 5 years to 7 years, delaying necessary changes to rules based on the latest scientific data and changes to the state's landscape. The second bill allows changes to an agency's rules after the public comment period has been closed, leaving the door wide open for modification by builder and business lobbyists.
LePage closely followed the developer playbook by opening 10 million acres of environmentally sensitive land under the jurisdiction of a regional land use planning commission to development in Maine. In New Jersey, Christie is testing this policy in the Highlands region, which provides drinking water to over 60% of the state and our key economic industries. The Governor has appointed pro-development individuals who have spoken out against the Highlands regulations to serve on the region's Water Protection and Planning Council. The DEP rules restricting development in the Highlands will be up for re-adoption next year and Christie is expected to dismantle those protections in favor of promoting sprawl.
The "reforms" being proposed in Maine and other states are already being implemented in New Jersey. This is not a coincidence; New Jersey is leading a broader national movement to dismantle environmental regulations now for short-sighted promotion of development and polluter interests.
New Jersey is dismantling clean air protections by overturning regulations on oil refineries and petroleum storage tanks that the industry cites as too costly. The same repeal has surfaced in proposed Virginia legislation that will override clean air to promote development.
The more national exposure Christie receives the further right his positions shift. Climate skepticism is a main tenet of the Tea Party. After running on a campaign platform of promoting renewable energy and green energy jobs in New Jersey, Christie shocked the state by announcing in November he is doubtful climate change is caused by human actions. These comments came shortly after a 15-state campaign trail tour to back other Republican candidates that had received national media attention.
Perilous Tea Party policies are sailing through the Statehouse backed by the Governor and the Democratic Legislature. These policies are not based on the needs of New Jersey's economy, budget deficit, or citizens. Christie is raising his national profile by implementing the Tea Party wishlist to rollback environmental protections at the state level throughout the nation. Christie is using talking points and tactics straight from the national developers and polluters' agenda to dismantle over 30 years of landmark environmental protections in New Jersey.
Jeff Tittel is the Director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club.