TRENTON, N.J. – Gov. Chris Christie’s administration sought to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate New Jersey’s deteriorating statehouse four months before the project was authorized, cutting out the public in a process a bipartisan group of lawmakers described as “rigged,” according to interviews and documents.
The Christie administration put out a request for proposals for a finance company to sell bonds to rehab the dilapidated building in December and selected RBC Capital Markets in January, months before an April meeting of a joint legislative-executive branch committee that approved the project, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a records request.
The Republican governor said that everything was done legally and has defended his handling of the sweeping project to renovate the executive wing of the building – part of which dates to the 18th century and has flaking paint, duct-taped skylights and inadequate fire safety devices.
There is little prospect for stopping the project, which could end up costing nearly a half-billion dollars and has drawn concerns about transparency and a lawsuit from Democrats and Republicans. A Superior Court judge ruled last month that the lawsuit was moot since the bonds to pay for the project already had been sold.
“They’re dealing with the insiders before they’re letting the voters know,” said Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who was among the legislators who sued the Christie administration. “It was designed to be a rigged deal from Day 1.”
The project was approved just before a bruising fight over the state’s nearly $35 billion budget that included a three-day government shutdown. Part of that was centered on Christie’s call for openness and accountability at New Jersey’s largest health insurer.
The project comes in Christie’s final year and as he faces deep unpopularity, with his approval rating at 15 percent in two recent polls.
“The issue is closed,” Christie said recently. “We conducted ourselves in a way that was completely legal and appropriate and effective, and so now we’re going to move ahead with the project.”
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who is running to succeed him, said she would scrap the renovation if elected.
Christie has defended the project as the necessary responsibility of a term-limited, outgoing governor; he has cited other problems including security concerns and the failure to properly accommodate the disabled. A governor seeking election would never have the political courage to spend money on the statehouse, he has reasoned.
Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance helped enact a New Jersey constitutional amendment that requires voter approval of new debt when he was a state lawmaker. The typically reserved lawmaker got heated about his disagreement with the governor over the project.
“I’m not against all borrowing, but you should ask the people who are going to pay the money back,” Lance said. “It’s so easy in our society to have the next generation pay off the debts of this generation. It’s eminently convenient.”
Republican state Sen. Kip Bateman, who represents a swing district that includes Democrat-leaning Princeton and was among the lawmakers fighting the financing in court, contrasted the plan with one to borrow money for libraries.
He says the statehouse funding was “rammed through” because the public likely wouldn’t back it, and pointed to his bill approved by lawmakers and waiting action from Christie that would require the public to weigh in on $125 million in new borrowing for libraries.
“I think the public is very cynical,” Bateman said. “If it really needed to be done, put it out to the public.”
Current and former Treasury officials say there’s nothing unusual about seeking bids on a project before final project approval.
Willem Rijksen, a spokesman for Christie’s treasurer, said the bond sale request for proposal and its timing were a “normal part of the process.”
And Dave Rousseau, who served as treasurer under Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, says it’s “not unusual” for governors to seek proposals for projects that have approval pending.
But Democratic Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who chairs the budget committee, says he’s never heard of a project getting the kind of fast track approval the statehouse renovation did.
“It certainly raises eyebrows,” Schaer said. “Because in my political life, which spans 27 years, I’ve never heard anything being done in such a fashion.”
Christie has brushed aside the criticisms, citing potentially dangerous aspects of the building’s disrepair and calling it a fire trap. He announced the project in November, but few details were immediately available other than his announcement that the Economic Development Authority would be part of it.
The State Capitol Joint Management Commission approved the project on April 25 by a vote of 7-0, with one abstention.
Weeks after the commission’s vote, the Economic Development Authority approved the sale of bonds to RBC just after taking a vote to move forward with the sale. Christie appoints the authority’s board members.