Gov. Chris Christie’s latest budget proposal honors a decade-old practice in New Jersey: It diverts millions of dollars intended for a lead exposure prevention program to the state’s general fund.
Christie’s Democratic predecessor made similar budget transfers. And administration officials say New Jersey is a success story for addressing lead contamination. But the Republican governor is drawing increasing criticism from lawmakers and community groups who claim he isn’t doing enough to reduce it.
They’ve focused their concern on the lack of money in Christie’s budget for the Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund.
Created in 2004, the fund was designed to provide financial assistance to property owners who want to remove lead paint, which can peel and crumble, placing children at risk for developmental disabilities.
A tax on paint cans was supposed to pay for the fund, providing at least $7 million a year.
But starting with Gov. Jon Corzine, the state has diverted some or nearly all of that money to the general budget almost every year.
Christie’s proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2017, unveiled last week, allocates $180,000, the same as this year. New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs said the program effectively ended in 2012.
Christie’s office cites the success of other lead inspection and abatement programs, for which the state spends $7 million a year. Another $5 million in federal money addresses lead in homes flooded by Superstorm Sandy.
Christie’s office also points to the steady drop in the number of kids exposed to lead in New Jersey since the 1990s and the skyrocketing number screened for contamination.
But the debate over lead is only growing in New Jersey, where hundreds of thousands of older homes still contain lead paint.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which caused exposure through lead pipes, has increased attention on the toxin’s impact. So have stricter federal standards, which recently increased the number of children considered to be at risk.
“If you’re a parent in Newark or Trenton, you probably don’t think we have a public health success yet,” said Elise Pivnick, director of environmental health for Isles, a Trenton-based environmental community group. “We still have really concentrated pockets of children with elevated lead levels.”
New Jersey’s Legislature passed a bill in January that would dedicate $10 million of what’s collected back to the lead fund, but Christie did not act on the measure, killing it.
“Most of the houses would be cleaned up already if they didn’t divert the money,” said Sen. Ronald Rice, a Democrat from Newark and the bill’s primary sponsor.
The Office of Legislative Services said that $25 million has gone into the lead fund since 2004, while nearly $67 million was funneled into the general budget.
Brian Murray, a Christie spokesman, said focusing just on that fund ignores the bigger picture of the state’s efforts and successes.
The number of New Jersey children with unsafe levels of lead in their blood dropped by 70 percent from 1997 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That state also increased the number of children who are tested 20-fold to more than 200,000.
Christie’s critics, however, point to changes in CDC standards, which in 2012 cut in half the amount of lead in a child’s blood that’s needed to be considered elevated. In 2013, that change increased the number of children at risk in New Jersey from more than 800 to more than 5,000.
The state’s Department of Health said it’s taking into account the new federal standards as it prepares to amend its own rules for lead.
Doug Farquhar, who directs the environmental health program for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said most have states have successfully reduced the number of kids exposed to lead.
“But the children are still out there,” he said. “It’s going to be a long term effort to slowly get lead out of our system.”