Debate Over Proposed $300M State House Renovation Plan

By Brenda Flanagan

Nobody disagrees, it’s a fixer-upper: dilapidated, deteriorated, even potentially dangerous. But does the historic executive section of New Jersey’s State House really need a complete $300 million overhaul? At a Senate committee hearing this morning, New Jersey’s State Treasurer Ford Scudder told lawmakers, yes.

“There are multiple code violations and life safety issues that have been identified over the past 15 years. Simply put, the entire building systems infrastructure needs to be replaced,” he said.

“It was easy to say we’ll do it some day. Well, my whole career went by. Never got done,” said Sen. Joe Kyrillos.

“What we are trying to determine, I believe, is that because of the dire strait of the state budget, whether there’s a ‘no frills’ approach as opposed to the comprehensive approach,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak.

Scudder explained Treasury’s comprehensive renovation plans evolved from an earlier, $38 million renovation project for the State House exterior. He said that work stopped three years ago, when the Philadelphia architectural firm it had hired decided the structure needed far more extensive repairs.

“It makes little sense to do patchwork repairs that would cost taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars, when full scale renovation is needed to address the serious problems that I’ve mentioned,” Scudder said.

Gov. Chris Christie made the same argument in a November news conference and noted the state Economic Development Authority would issue bonds to finance the $300 million project. He planned to start moving State House employees out in July.

Democrats say, not so fast.

“I think we’re 49th in states in terms of our fiscal health and so on. Taking on another $300 million of debt? What does that do to the state’s overall fiscal health and fiscal rating?” asked Sen. Jim Whelan.

Some senators noted this is a new, bigger, far more expensive project that by law requires legislative approval.

“If necessary, we will go to court. We will go to the New Jersey Supreme Court to stop this train,” Lesniak said. “We’ll negotiate first. We will sit down with the administration, with the governor’s folks, to see if a no frills approach can be taken.”

The committee requested a list of prioritized projects and said it wants to fix the safety problems throughout the building without sending New Jersey’s credit ratings straight to the basement.