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Christie trying to pull a fast one with Statehouse bond sale, lawmakers say

TRENTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers and gubernatorial candidates on Wednesday slammed the Christie administration over the quick and quiet sale of $300 million in bonds to pay for a controversial Statehouse renovation.

Several lawmakers critical of the project’s proposed costs had filed suit in an attempt to block the renovation of the crumbling Statehouse.

They said they were surprised to learn Wednesday that the state had raised the funds in a bond sale on Thursday, the same day the financing plan was approved by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

Lawmakers said the speed at which the process played out indicates that the administration was eager to avoid scrutiny. One lawmaker went as far as to question whether the sale process may have broken the law.

Christie and state officials, however, defended the sale as proper and legal.

Although the price tag on the work has been put at $300 million, state officials say with interest the project may actually cost taxpayers $500 million to $750 million to pay off over several decades.

The project was approved by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission, which has jurisdiction over the Statehouse, and the Economic Development Agency, which issued the bonds. Some lawmakers said the approval should have been instead handled by the Legislature or the voters.

State Sens. Mike Doherty, R-Warren, Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset, and Ray Lesniak, D-Union, sued the administration last week in a complaint that argues that the deal violated the separation of powers, debt limitation and appropriations clauses of the state Constitution.

Instead of making debt payments, State Capitol Joint Management Commission will repay the bonds by paying rent to the Economic Development Agency for a building the state already owns. Critics of this subleasing plan say it bypasses the state’s debt rules.

The senators said they would continue their legal challenge even though the sale would appear to make their litigation moot.

Doherty (a conservative), Bateman (a moderate Republican) and Lesniak (a liberal lawmaker seeking the Democratic nomination for governor), said the sale was an effort by the administration to avoid accountability and transparency.

“This is a clear sign that the Christie Administration didn’t want to give legislators or the public even a moment to review or challenge this expensive Statehouse renovation,” Doherty said in a joint statement with his colleagues.

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A spokesman for the Senate Republicans said the lawmakers were not arguing that any laws were broken by the quick sale of the bonds, but the public “should question why the sale of the bonds happened the same day the EDA approved” the proposal, Brad Schnure said.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, also seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next month, said the sale “raises significant red flags” and called it “a very Trump-esque move.”

Wisniewski said the bonds may have been sold as soon as 30 minutes after the EDA met to approve the bonds, according to a rough time estimate provided by the state’s attorneys. State officials have not released a detailed timeline of the sale.

“In this particular case, the authority for the bonds didn’t come until moments before the bonds were sold. Under what authority were they prepared for a sale of bonds that had not been authorized yet?” said Wisniewski, who also had filed a lawsuit regarding the plan and will seek to have a court rescind the bond sale.

“The fact the state had the bonds prepared and buyers lined up before the vote tells us that Christie and his cronies cut a backroom deal designed to end run the process and jam this renovation right down the voters throats.”

Phil Murphy, another Democrat running for governor, said the sale had been done “surreptitiously, and without public knowledge.”

Christie on Wednesday dismissed the criticism as political grandstanding by candidates.

“My job is to make sure that that building is preserved for historical purposes and is a functional, operating office building, that’s safe and appropriate for the people who work there every day,” Christie told reporters.

“I think the arrangement between the joint management commission of the Statehouse and the EDA is one that is not only appropriate but necessary. All parties and all branches of government were represented in that process. I think it’s the right thing to do and we’re going to continue forward with it.”

Treasury spokesman Will Rijksen said the state on Thursday “took all required steps to effectuate and close the Economic Development Authority’s direct purchase bond issuance to fund the State House restoration. The bond issuance was legal and appropriate.”

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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