The state Legislature’s top Democrat came on board with a plan from the Murphy administration for the state to borrow at least half a billion dollars to finance the removal of lead service lines and paint from hundreds of thousands of homes over the next 10 years, but argued the amount fell short of the total price tag.
Indeed, in April the Department of Environmental Protection said the cost would be $2.3 billion to replace an estimated 350,000 lead pipes and service lines across the state. Meanwhile, an Oct. 10 report from Jersey Water Works Lead in Drinking Water Task Force recommended a $2 billion, 10-year replacement of all the lead lines in the state.
“We know the number’s not right, and the worst part is if we bond $500 million, and three years from now the money’s gone. People are going to think ‘what did you do with the money, you misappropriated it, we gave you what you asked for,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, told reporters following a Thursday morning voting session in Trenton.
After Gov. Phil Murphy proposed bonding the money earlier this month, Sweeney said in a statement that he would “welcome” the governor’s proposals and make sure they are given “serious consideration.”
Now, the Senate President wants to make sure voters decide via a ballot question in the 2020 election whether the state should be able to borrow that money.
To appear on the ballot, the measure would need a simple majority in the Assembly and state Senate for two calendar years in a row – 2019 and 2020 – or to be passed a single time in both houses by a three-fifths majority.
Sweeney assured it would be passed during lame duck – the two-month period between the Nov. 5 elections and when new Assembly-elects are sworn into office early January.
The proposal came on the heels of a public health crisis in Newark, where more than 100,000 residents may have been exposed to toxic levels of lead in their drinking water. State environmental regulators found that distributed lead filters were not getting the job done, resulting in many of those residents needing water bottles on a near daily basis.
“Newark got half a billion from the federal government and $120 million from Joe DiVincenzo – $620 million to fix Newark alone,” Sweeney said.
The governor argued that $500 million would be enough, though he was not a hard line to maintain that number. His plan also calls for the labor and education departments to work to train the necessary workforce for the decade-long undertaking.
“When you combine what money is available through the DEP, the infrastructure bank, federal money, you’ve got a lot of investor-owned utilities,” he said Oct. 10 at Thomas Edison State University in Trenton.
Some of the funds could materialize by utilities adding surcharges on customers’ monthly bills. And it is not clear how quickly the market would absorb the new money, if at all.
The Murphy administration is already in the rulemaking process for how to begin selling half a billion dollars of bonds to finance infrastructure upgrades to New Jersey’s K-12, vo-tech and community colleges following a 2018 bond that was approved by voters. And, no libraries in the state have seen any money from a $125 million bond act that voters approved in 2017 to finance library upgrades.