Stop to DEP waivers and workers comp pay hike advance, despite business opposition
A pair of measures opposed by business groups advanced in the state Senate on Thursday, including a resolution blocking a proposed environmental waiver rule and a bill providing annual increases for workers compensation recipients.
A rule that would allow the Department of Environmental Protection to waive regulations for one of four reasons would be blocked under a resolution released by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.
"We still need to have a department that is willing to work with business," said Sara Bluhm, vice president of environment, energy and federal affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. Bluhm added that allowing the waiver rule to go into effect wouldn't mean that waivers will be granted.
Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the waiver rule would allow the flexibility and predictability needed for economic development to occur.
"I don't believe that they would just pass a waiver in the dark of the night," Egenton said of officials with the DEP, adding that the Legislature should give the waiver rule a chance to go into effect.
Environmental and labor groups supported the resolution blocking waivers, saying it was vaguely worded and would allow sweeping reversals of DEP staff decisions.
DEP workers already are seeing decisions reversed due to political pressure, according to Adam Leibtag, president of Communication Workers of America Local 1036, which represents DEP staff members.
His allegation prompted Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank) to caution Leibtag against testifying about potential improprieties that he has heard about secondhand. Committee chairman Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway) said the committee would be interested in hearing confidential testimony about any allegations.
The differing sides on the resolution had very different interpretations of how the law would affect businesses. Delaware Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum said allowing waivers for development in stream buffer zones would lead to flood damage and lost time from workers dealing with flooding.
"From our perspective, this is not a net benefit," she said.
But Paul Schneider, a lawyer at Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla, in Red Bank, representing the New Jersey Builders Association, said the waiver would allow redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites on waterfronts. This would allow polluted properties to be cleaned up and new buffers to be put into place.
Under the rule, waivers would be allowed when rules conflict with one another, when strict compliance creates an "unduly burdensome" situation, when a waiver creates a net environmental benefit and when a public emergency exists. The two sides disagreed on whether the rule properly defined these situations.
The resolution, SCR-59, was passed by a 3-1 vote, with Smith, Sen. Linda R. Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) and Sen. Nicholas J. Sacco (D-North Bergen) in favor and Beck opposed. The Assembly version of the measure, ACR-37, will likely heard in committee on Monday.
In other news, the Senate Labor Committee released a bill, S-613, which would provide annual cost-of-living increases for state workers compensation recipients. The measure would apply to those injured since 1980; those who were injured before then already receive cost-of-living adjustments. Benefits were lower prior to 1980.
NJBIA Vice President of Health and Legal Affairs Christine Stearns said the bill lead to a $151 million increase, leading to higher tax rates for employers.
"New Jersey's workers compensation systems works well for employers and employees, but the cost trends are worrisome," Stearns said, adding that employer rates rose 3.9 percent in 2011 and 6.9 percent this year. The state also has risen in national rankings of workers compensation rates and currently ranks seventh.
New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. legislative affairs director Patrick W. Breslin also opposed the bill. He said public employees receive benefits, but only private employers fund the compensation.
Supporters of the bill included Peggy Mallen, a representative for New Jersey Survivors of the Triangle, the state chapter of the organization for surviving spouses of police officers who were killed in the line of duty.
She said the compensation can be more than four times higher for those who have received cost-of-living increases since 1980 than for those whose compensation doesn't increase.
"This is a gross inequity," said Mallen, whose husband, Detective Albert John Mallen Sr., was shot and killed in 1985.
The bill was released by a 3-0 vote.