Gov. Chris Christie has been pushing for a planned $300 million overhaul of the oldest sections of the New Jersey State House to begin as early as this July. But now a veteran Democratic lawmaker is threatening to file a lawsuit to ensure lawmakers have more say as the project moves forward.
Sen. Ray Lesniak — who recently announced he is running for governor this year — said he has concerns about the total cost of the State House renovations, especially in the face of New Jersey’s notorious fiscal problems. But he also doesn’t believe Christie has the legal authority to finance the renovation project without the approval of lawmakers, something that right now seems to be Christie’s intention.
Lesniak said after a legislative hearing yesterday on the matter that he’s willing to sue the Christie administration to make sure the Legislature has its say. State Treasurer Ford Scudder outlined the proposed renovations in detail during the same hearing, but Lesniak said he still has concerns. “If necessary we will go to court,” said Lesniak (D-Union). “This has been a very secretive and haphazard project.”
Christie unveiled the State House renovation project in late November, saying it would be the first in decades for a section of the building that houses the signature gold leaf dome, its rotunda and several executive-branch offices, including the governor’s office. This original part of the State House located near the Delaware River on West State Street in Trenton dates back to 1792. Though the building has undergone several major expansions and renovations, including after a major fire in 1885, it’s been roughly six decades since the last significant overhaul was completed.
Scudder went over some of the building’s biggest problems during the Senate Economic Growth Committee’s hearing yesterday which was chaired by Lesniak. Scudder detailed code violations and “life-safety issues,” and also pointed to posters depicting the worst problem areas. From poor smoke detection and fire escapes to inefficient heating and cooling systems to windows held up only by a set of clips, Scudder said the State House is suffering from “extreme deterioration.”
“Delaying the project will continue to expose occupants, visitors and the surrounding neighborhood to life-safety hazards,” he said.
Though an original plan outlined in the New Jersey Building Authority’s 2015 annual report called for a more modest “envelope” renovation that would cost $38 million, the scope was expanded more recently into the broader $300 million proposal calling for a full overhaul the building. The more ambitious renovation would require employees to move to temporary workspace and also displace the media that works on Press Row in the State House.
Scudder said the Nelson/PDP consulting partnership that has been selected to work on the project has experience renovating historic buildings throughout the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. and the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.
“It makes little sense to do patchwork repairs that would cost taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars when full-scale renovation is needed to address the serious problems I have mentioned,” he said.
Still, questions have been raised in the wake of Christie’s announcement about whether the state can afford to fund the renovations and issue bonds to finance the work in the wake of the latest credit-rating downgrade announced last year. Scudder attempted to calm those concerns, saying $300 million is a modest amount of money for the state and shouldn’t risk any credit actions.
But Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), who said he supports the renovation, told Scudder the Christie administration has more work to do to convince others that the project is absolutely necessary. “We know it is an embarrassment … the place is falling down and it looks like it looked a half a century ago,” Kyrillos said.
“You guys should be very explicit and persuasive,” he said. “Most people have never been here. It’s not only your job to get the project going, but it’s also your job to explain it.”
Lesniak said he wants to know whether the project can be done for a lower price since Christie is planning to borrow most of the funding needed to pay for the building repairs. Other senators on the committee raised similar concerns during the hearing. And questions were also raised about why the project wasn’t put out for a bid again after the decision was made to expand its scope — to see if a different firm could do the renovation for a better price.
“There’s no doubt, and I believe I can speak for the rest of the committee, we concede that these safety improvements and renovations are necessary and should not be delayed,” Lesniak said. “What we’re trying to determine is that because of the dire straits of the state budget is there a no-frills approach?”
“That will hopefully be for us to determine as a Legislature representing the public through a concurrent resolution,” Lesniak said.
Scudder countered that Christie intends to finance the project through the state Economic Development Authority, viewing it as “part and parcel” of a broader Trenton redevelopment project that the agency is spearheading.
“We’ll have to have a legal disagreement on that,” Lesniak responded, citing the New Jersey Building Authorities Act of 1981 as the applicable law governing the issue. He also pointed to the minutes of a 2015 Building Authority meeting where legislative approval was discussed as more evidence that Christie cannot finance the renovations without the Legislature’s input.
After the hearing was over, Treasury spokesman Willem Rijksen didn’t directly address Lesniak’s threat to sue over legislative approval. He said the EDA has decades of bonding experience, including financing the construction of state buildings. “As with any bond issuance handled by the EDA, the selection of bond counsel and subsequent legal guidance are necessary before financing plans can be completed,” Rijksen said. “Once completed, clear disclosures of all financing terms and required approvals, if any, will be made public.”
“The timely undertaking of this project is important not only to save this historic landmark from irreparable damage, but to address the safety issues resulting from decades of neglect,” he said.
Lesniak is one of the Legislature’s longest-serving members, and he is no stranger to conflict with Christie, a second-term Republican now in his final full year in office. Lesniak recently called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Christie played any role in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal after his name was frequently mentioned last year during the federal corruption trial of two former close allies. In response, Christie fired back aggressively during a recent NJ 101.5 FM radio show, calling Lesniak “crazy” and “nuts.”
But it was also Lesniak who wrote a letter to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission in 2014 calling for an investigation of the Port Authority’s decision, made at the urging of Christie allies, to finance several road projects in New Jersey using funds raised through agency bonds. The SEC announced earlier this week that the Port Authority would pay a $400,000 penalty to settle a case related to those allegations, an issue that Lesniak raised during the hearing yesterday.
“We have legislative approval on these major projects so that the public can come forth and testify and so that the information that we’re starting to find out now comes to light,” he said.