Lawsuits seeking to block Statehouse renovation tossed by NJ judge
TRENTON — Lawsuits filed by five state lawmakers seeking to block Gov. Chris Christie’s administration from proceeding with renovations to the Statehouse were dismissed as moot because bonds to pay for the work have already been sold.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled Wednesday that a state Supreme Court decision from 20 years ago over pension bonds set a precedent that allows the roughly $300 million project to begin.
Lawmakers said the ruling rewards Christie for gaming the system – first by not seeking the direct approval of the Legislature, as had been done for a now-scrapped $38 million Statehouse repair, and second by upholding a bond sale completed the same afternoon the borrowing was approved by the state Economic Development Authority.
“Christie won, put one over the taxpayers on this by his manipulation of the rules, having plotted ahead of time to sell these bonds immediately after the EDA approved it, which had to be plotted ahead of time as well,” said Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union. “It’s just a very crafty manipulation of the law for Christie to avoid legislative approval or approval of the voters, and unfortunately he’s getting away with it.”
“What happened today is that the judge decided that bondholder rights trump the constitution,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex. “The bondholders were more important in this decision than the debt limitation clause, and no matter how you slice the arguments made here, this was a debt called a lease.”
Lesniak and Wisniewski unsuccessfully sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in last week’s primary, and Christie had dismissed their opposition to the project as political grandstanding. A third former Democratic candidate, Bill Brennan, watched the court hearing from the audience.
The lawmakers said they will consider appealing, though they conceded the renovations are likely to begin in the interim.
“I’m sure that Gov. Christie’s going to roll up the big ball, the wrecking ball, this weekend and start,” Lesniak said.
In court, Deputy Attorney General Jean Reilly said the state had not tried to escape review of the project, saying it was approved at public meetings by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission on April 25 and the EDA on May 11.
“During those 16 days, plaintiffs or anyone could have come in to challenge it. They could have filed suit. They could have sought a stay,” Reilly said. “The (1997 pension bonds) plaintiff did both of those. These plaintiffs didn’t file suit. They filed press releases instead.”
Republican Sens. Christopher “Kip” Bateman and Michael Doherty had sued along with Lesniak.
Democratic Sen. Richard Codey, a former governor, also filed a lawsuit trying to block the project.