Christine Whitman:
Putting a Human Face on Greed

By Hank Kalet
Special to the Progressive Populist

Trenton, N.J.

New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman is a darling of the National Republican Party.

Since being elected in 1993, the governor has spent much time on the road in an effort to place a kinder and gentler face on Republican candidates and to show the softer, more human side of a party that has come to represent mean-spirited extremism to many Americans.

Speculation had the Somerset County Republican, who will be seeking reelection this year, on the short list of potential vice presidential candidates last year, and she continues to be mentioned as among those likely to be considered for the GOP ticket in the year 2000. She was given a prime speaking slot during the 1996 Republican National Convention and offered the GOP rebuttal to President Clinton's 1995 State of the Union speech.

The reasons for her national prominence are simple: She ran on the nominally populist platform of lower taxes, and then followed through by cutting the state's income tax rate by 30%. She also relaxed regulations on business, which gives her good libertarian credentials, and she is pro-choice and offers herself as the socially moderate voice of reason.

But Whitman's moderation is a facade. Whitman caved in to the religious right during the Republican Convention, allowing the hard-line anti-abortionists to draft a hard-line plank.

And more importantly, her actions during her first three years in office show her to be very much in sync with the slash-and-burn economic and environmental policies of the national party.

To fulfill her campaign promise of a 30% cut in the state's income tax:

She has raided an assortment of pension, health care and unemployment trust funds, leaving both taxpayers and workers to wonder whether those funds will have enough money to adequately provide for the people they were designed to help;

She has drastically reduced the number of environmental inspectors and regulators on the state payroll, making inspections difficult and nearly leading the federal government to shut down the state's shellfish industry;

She has increased an assortment of user-fees, including the cost of driver's license and vehicle registration renewal;

She privatized the state Division of Motor Vehicles, tossing scores of employees out of work and forcing hundreds of others to take significant pay cuts.

That's not all. To create a more "business-friendly" atmosphere in the state:

She has weakened numerous environmental laws, which had been considered among the strongest in the nation, including the Pollution Prevention Act and the state's Right to Know law, which required chemical companies and industrial manufacturers to inform communities and workers of the chemicals they use;

She has streamlined the state's environmental permitting procedure, in the process loosening strict guidelines on the kinds of pollutants that can be discharged into the water;

She eliminated the Public Advocate's Office, which represented the interests of the state's citizens in matters dealing with various levels of government, and the position of Environmental Prosecutor, which was responsible for going after environmental criminals. She replaced them with a Business Ombudsman, whose primary function is to cut red tape and smooth the way for businesses, and the independent Prosperity New Jersey, which promotes deregulation and business expansion.

The governor says these changes are good for the state, that they create a more attractive climate for business and they allow residents of the state to keep more of their money in their pockets.

"Three years ago, New Jersey faced more than its share of problems," she said in her Jan. 15 State of the State address. "Our citizens and our economy were still reeling under the effects of the largest tax increase in state history.

"Billions of dollars had been taken out of the hands of the people of our state and from the businesses that are the backbone of our economy. But even more devastating was the message Trenton was sending: Send us more of your money, because we can spend it better than you."

But her critics point out that her tax policies will lead to disaster in the future and that her environmental policies can only harm New Jersey residents.

The Star-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper, said that by "sucking out surpluses in the state unemployment insurance and temporary disability funds and draining a school repair loan fund and other special purpose pots," the governor is courting future disaster.

And the Record of Hackensack, published a 10-part series on Gov. Whitman last summer, said that the governor has exhibited a "pattern of helping businesses at the expense of the environment - and possibly the health of ordinary people."

The shell game

Between 1993 and 1995, New Jersey residents saw their state income tax slashed by 30%, which fulfilled Gov. Whitman's chief campaign promise.

But in order to make her tax cut a reality without significantly slashing programs, the governor has had to resort to a series of fiscal maneuvers that could imperil the state in the future.

"The entire policy covers up what she's doing, which is deficit financing," says Ken Paris, a budget analysis for the Communications Workers of America.

During her first three years in office, the governor has reduced payments to the state's pension system by about $3.16 billion, cut state aid to municipalities, diverted $249 million from the state's temporary-disability fund and had done the same with unemployment, environmental, school repair and transportation accounts.

These were one-shot revenue boosters, however, maneuvers with short term political advantage that could leave these accounts dangerously low just at the time they are needed most.

The pension fund raid is a prime example. The Whitman Administration has argued that the pension fund had been overfunded and that it is justified in reducing its contribution. It has said that the changes will have no effect on retiring workers.

But the state is "still going to have to pay a certain amount of money overall to workers," Paris says. "That's not going to change. By cutting now, they are going to have to jump up their payments later, and not only to cover the $3 billion, but to cover interest, as well."

Which means, as the Washington Monthly pointed out in 1995, "future taxpayers will be stuck with the bill for pensions that should have been funded with the money Whitman is using to make herself appear to be a fiscal wizard."

And now, the governor is proposing to sell $3.4 billion in pension bonds. While that would bring in $623 million in revenue this year, it will result in a larger debt load, which will have to be repaid by taxpayers in the future.

A pollution alert

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, with 7.7 million people living within its 7,468 square miles. And nearly half the total population - and almost all of the state's minority population - are crammed into narrow six-county stretch along the Atlantic Ocean comprised of older cities, newer suburbs and blue collar towns.

It is here that Gov. Whitman's policies have done the most damage.

As the Record of Hackensack points out, it is in these counties where "homes and schools stand cheek by jowl with the chemical plants and industrial facilities that once formed the economic backbone of the region" that "the risks would be greatest as the governor pursues her strategy of less environmental oversight and relaxed regulations."

In Garfield, a working class city in Bergen County, the Record reported that chromium contamination has kept an apartment building closed, because air and water testing necessary to determine if the building is safe are not being conducted.

In Lodi, another working-class enclave, rescue and fire crews had to rely on older - and possibly outdated - information when battling a blaze caused by a chemical plant explosion, because the state relaxed reporting requirements for chemicals.

And residents of Jersey City and Newark, cities with heavy minority populations, will be forced to live with polluted playgrounds and waterways, because the state plans to significantly increase the amount of chemical contamination it deems acceptable and to relieve businesses from cleaning up what it considers "historic pollution."

"She has shown no understanding of what's happening in communities like these," says Madelyn Hoffman, executive director of the Grass Roots Environmental Organization and a potential Green Party gubernatorial candidate. "Virtually everything she's proposed will have the effect of increasing pollution levels in neighborhoods like these."

Curtis Fisher, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group's Citizen Lobby, agreed.

"Because of the situation of industrial activity in highly populated areas of North Jersey, mainly, the risks posed are exponentially higher compared to other areas in this state," he told the Record.

But the governor disputes these claims. She said in an interview with the Record that she has protected the environment while seeking to make the DEP more efficient.

"I want to see us move away from the zero-sum game," she said, "and move into a position where we understand that you can keep a clean and healthy environment and still have business growth, because to say otherwise means you stagnate."

Whitman's environmental approach is two-pronged: Cut funding for state agencies that monitor pollution and relax regulations to make compliance easier for businesses.

This approach has left the state Department of Environmental Protection understaffed and the state's environmental regulations relatively ineffective.

Since taking office, the governor slashed the DEP budget from $200.4 million to $172.2 million, or 16.4% and reduced its staff by 14%.

These budget and staffing cuts have affected the state's ability to monitor industry. According to the Record, state permit inspections designed to limit the amount of pollution companies discharge into waterways and emit into the air have decline precipitously since Whitman has taken office. In 1993, the DEP conducted 3,495 water inspections and 12,826 air pollution inspections, but by 1996 those numbers dropped to 2,400 and 7,250, respectively.

Right to Know Less

On top of this, budget cuts at the Department of Health have forced it to scale back its Hazardous Substance Fact Sheets program, which provides information on hazardous chemicals to communities, workers and emergency personnel under the state's Right to Know law.

In 1995, the governor cut the Right to Know budget by 35%, from $2 million to $1.3 million, and reduced its staff from 29 people to 18. Because of this, the state has stopped preparing new fact sheets and has ceased updating about half the existing ones, according to the Record.

The result, as the Record points out, "has been fewer inspections, increased violations, and rare enforcement of penalties for those caught ignoring the law. In 1995, for example, the DEP found 410 violations during 1,007 inspections, and levied no fines. The department now has only six inspectors to cover 33,000 companies and 10,000 public facilities."

And these changes have the greatest impact on the state's most densely populated areas.

"The technical people and the people out in the field that are identifying environmental problems and trying to devise solutions are the people being cut," NJPIRG's Fisher told the Record. "The cuts impact places like Garfield, where they need the attention of the state DEP but they are going to get very little."

But the governor says that staffing reductions will little long-term effect.

"The staff of the DEP is still over 3,000," she told the Record. "And we believe we can be more efficient, that bodies alone don't necessarily equate to a cleaner environment."

Changes in regulations made by the Whitman Administration, and those currently proposed, are just as damaging.

The Whitman Administration has cut the number of hazardous substances that companies must report to the state and local emergency squads under the Right to Know law from 2,900 to 900, while also relaxing the reporting regulation so that chemicals do not have to be reported unless the amount exceeds 500 pounds. Prior to the change, companies had to report when more than 100 pounds of a hazardous substance was on site.

This places workers and emergency personnel in jeopardy, because they cannot be sure what kinds of chemicals with which they might be working. As the Record stated in an editorial "many of the chemicals removed from the list can kill or cause serious health problems if mishandled. That's because the state didn't perform any tests to determine which chemicals were dangerous or which were safe."

In addition, the governor is proposing new guidelines to determine whether contaminated soil and water are safe. These new guidelines will increase what are known "background" or allowable levels for contaminants, a move that critics say will be a windfall for business, who no longer will be responsible for cleaning up polluted sites, but could leave residents exposed to dangerous contaminants.

"What public health justification can (the DEP) have?" Robert Tucker, former director of the DEP's Division of Science and Research now a professor at Rutgers University and director of the school's Ecopolicy Center, said in the Record. "Just because the stuff is from a while back, it still needs to be cleaned up."

According to the Record, "pending rules changes would redefine pollution by increasing the amount of chromium that could be left behind after a cleanup, by declaring some polluted ground water non-drinkable so it need not be cleaned, and by ignoring 'historic' pollution left over wide areas by decades of human activity."

Those changes could include a 50% increase in the amount of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium that could be left behind after more than 100 sites in Jersey City, Kearny and Secaucus have been cleaned.

And, according to the Record, the DEP may allow companies leave behind 150 times as much trivalent chromium, "which causes skin irritation but isn't carcinogenic."

In addition, the Whitman Administration is working with a group of about 20 companies in the Ironbound section of Newark who are seeking to reclassify contaminated ground water there as non-drinkable, which would relieve them of the responsibility of cleaning it.

And, according to the Record, the administration is drafting a proposal that would "allow property owners who are cleaning up a contaminated site to ignore 'historic' pollution that is present because of decades of human activity."

Under current rules, polluted properties must be restored to safe levels before they can be sold or developed. But the business community has complained that the cleanup regulations make development of urban sites difficult.

So the administration has drafted a proposal that have the state measure and map out "levels of preexisting pollution" and require property owners to "deal only with pollution that exceeded the historic level found in their area," the Record reported.

DEP Assistant Commissioner Richard Gimello explained to the Record that the state needs to encourage development of contaminated property in industrial areas to protect the urban job base and keep pollution from spreading to the suburbs. Because of potential cleanup costs, he said, companies often choose to build on unspoiled land.

"It's time to look at the whole concept of remediation so prospective purchasers who want to come into these areas can define their costs, and their liabilities won't be as open-ended as they are today," he told the Record.

But critics say the changes are little more than gifts to the business community and that they are based on faulty science and discredited assumptions.

"They're trying to define pollution out of existence," Tony Aguilar, an organizer for a coalition of Jersey City church groups that has filed suit against the state seeking large-scale health screening and a speedy cleanup of contamination at Liberty State Park.

"All these proposals point to one troubling conclusion," the Record said in an editorial. "Instead of cleaning up the state's environmental mess, Mrs. Whitman conveniently wants to throw in the towel."

Hank Kalet is news editor for the Princeton Packet's Middlesex County newspapers and a political columnist for the Aquarian Weekly.

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