Asbury Park Press

Christie Kills Child Lead Protection Bill

Asbury Park Press — January 19, 2016

By Russ Zimmer

As Flint, Michigan, grapples with lead contamination of its water supply, GOP presidential candidate Gov. Chris Christie killed a bill that would have given thousands of New Jersey children more protection from lead poisoning.

Christie took no action Tuesday on S1279, which would have set aside $10 million for the state's Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund, effectively killing funding for the state program that helps protect children from lead poisoning caused by old paint and other substances.

The governor's pocket veto comes with the issue of lead exposure in the national spotlight. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama appointed a "czar" to serve as point person for the toxic water crisis in Flint, where officials are scrambling to deal with dangerous lead levels in the city's water system — this after a botched changeover in the city's water supply.

Obama, who met with Flint officials Tuesday, signed an emergency declaration Saturday that could get Flint up to $5 million in federal funds, amid charges that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, didn't care about a problem affecting an urban community.

"We've had a city in the United States of America, where the population, which is poor in many ways, and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water," candidate Hillary Clinton said during Sunday night's Democratic presidential primary debate. "And the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled."

Much the same criticism is being leveled at Christie, who let the New Jersey measure die without any comment.

"Last year more than 3,100 of New Jersey's children, primarily in low-income and minority communities, were poisoned by lead. And yet, every single year of his administration, Gov. Christie has raided the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund in order to balance the budget," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action.

Last year, the Asbury Park Press revealed that state lawmakers had — for more than a decade — been raiding a fund meant to protect children from lead poisoning in order to help prop up the state budget. In the aftermath of the Press investigation, the Legislature responded in bipartisan fashion, backing the lead-funding bill 29-6 in the Senate and 48-20 in the Assembly.

State Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, who sponsored the bill, called Christie's inaction "an insult to the residents of New Jersey." Federal studies show that every dollar spent on preventing child lead-poisoning can return up to $221 in economic benefits — savings from health care, special education and other costs avoided.

"I don't know how you can be a governor who wants to improve reading scores and improve school graduation rates and lower crime, and not fund a program that would do precisely that," said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.

Democratic and Republican governors, including Christie, and members of the Legislature have all had a hand in diverting more than $50 million from the lead hazard fund since 2004. The fund was established by law to protect children from lead paint in older housing.

Testing showed that from 2000 through 2014, more than 222,000 New Jersey children under the age of 6 had high levels of lead in their blood, the Press investigation found. Lead damages the brain and can lead to a lifetime of learning and behavioral problems.

Lead poisoning is completely preventable and most of lead's victims are low-income, minority children that live in the older housing stock of urban areas.

"$10 million now will go a tremendously long way to reducing the health and educational cost that the kids who suffer from (lead poisoning) will face," said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. "It's really a small drop in the bucket. ... Our elected officials have an obligation — both moral and economic — to solve this crisis once and for all."

Christie's pocket veto of the lead funding wasn't entirely surprising. His office noted in advance of Tuesday's deadline for action that the administration has a track record for not approving supplemental appropriations, saying that all spending decisions should be made as part of the annual budget process.

The governor could also, as advocates are hoping, include the $10 million in his upcoming budget — although the Governor's Office has also argued that it has made significant gains in fighting lead-poisoning without the dedicated appropriation to the special fund.

The Christie administration has spent very nearly as much — about $8 million — on legal fees to defend the governor and others in matters related to the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal.

"This is money that should be used for lead abatement and instead it's going to balancing the budget," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "He is vetoing the health of our children."

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