Environmentalists hope Democratic wins will advance their agenda in Trenton

By: - November 24, 2023 8:15 am

Environmental advocates rallied for clean energy outside the Statehouse in Trenton on Nov. 20, 2023. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

In their bids for Statehouse seats, Republicans running for the Legislature warned that wind turbines kill whales, the government would confiscate everyone’s stoves, and the cost of electric cars would spark an exodus, a resounding rejection of Gov. Phil’s Murphy’s clean-energy agenda.

But Democrats largely trounced Republicans at the polls earlier this month. And while other issues like abortion and parental rights dominated debates in many districts, environmentalists say the election results show citizens support the state’s green goals and portend more environmental progress during the coming legislative session, which starts Jan. 9.

“Voters rejected the MAGA Republican narrative on the environment,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “All of those messages fell flat in every district. We spent over $300,000 to elect environmental champions throughout the state, and in every place, we were victorious, because people stood up for those basic rights for our children and grandchildren — clean air, clean water, and open spaces.”

The last two legislatures have been “the most environmentally productive” in the last decade, Potosnak added.

“I think it’s only going to get more ambitious, in the most densely populated state with the most Superfund sites, to protect our resources for future generations,” he said. “I have no doubt that there are good things ahead for us for environmental protection.”

Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey director of Clean Water Action, speaks at a rally for clean energy outside the Statehouse in Trenton on Nov. 20, 2023. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Clean Water Action state director Amy Goldsmith said candidates’ campaign messaging offered lessons for policymakers looking to build support for green initiatives.

Affordability is perennially a favorite theme for both parties, but Democrats failed to show voters how going green can save money, while Republicans subverted that affordability message by focusing on the costs of green infrastructure, Goldsmith said.

“Affordability has always been a message for us, and we need to reclaim that message to do renewables, energy conservation, energy efficiency, and solar,” she said.

Policy priorities

Environmental advocates said a greener Legislature should improve the odds of several key policy proposals in the next legislative session, if they fizzle in the six remaining weeks of the lame-duck session.

One is a bill to codify Murphy’s energy master plan, under which he set 2035 as his 100% clean energy target for all electricity in the state to come from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels. The legislation was heard in committee this week but won’t see a vote until Dec. 18 at least.

Many environmental advocates also hope lawmakers will extend the corporate business tax surcharge, which generates about $1 billion for the state, including $60 million for green space and the environment. The surcharge, levied on companies with net profits above $1 million, is set to expire at the end of the year. Murphy doesn’t want to extend it, but Democratic leaders like Senate President Nicholas Scutari and 2025 gubernatorial hopeful Steve Fulop, as well as good-government watchdogs, have pitched continuing the tax to support NJ Transit, which environmentalists endorse.

Potosnak also hopes Murphy and the Senate will prioritize filling vacancies on environmental boards and commissions, especially those like the New Jersey Highlands Council that have so many open seats they have trouble reaching a quorum for meetings.

And Goldsmith considers wind energy a top goal, too, despite recent setbacks.

“We don’t want to be buying all the wind from Texas,” Goldsmith said. “We want it here, and if we don’t build it, the Jersey Shore is going to be underwater or burning to a crisp, because New Jersey, Florida, and Louisiana are the most vulnerable states to sea level rise and climate change. So we have to do everything we can to fight that, and there’s no real other large-scale mechanism to do it.”

Even with a more green-minded Legislature, one environmental advocate said he doesn’t plan to rest easy.

Kevin Barfield of Camden for Clean Air, who rallied outside the Statehouse Monday in support of clean energy, said politicians, no matter their principles, often remain beholden to their benefactors.

“We know that the oil and gas industry is powerful, and we know that many of our elected officials get funding from those particular industries,” Barfield said. “So we need to be out here to promote our priorities and get them to understand that they have to seriously represent their constituents in these areas where all these industries are polluting and interfering with the quality of life and air quality.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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