Statehouse Renovation: Full-Speed Ahead On Unclear Path
TRENTON — Lawmakers seeking details about the Statehouse renovations slated to start this summer got precious few in their initial budget hearings with the state treasurer.
The state plans to vacate the executive wing of the Statehouse in early July and anticipates spending around $300 million in a four-year project to repair and modernize the nation’s second-oldest capitol building in continuous operation, as well as renovate a building across West State Street.
The topic wasn’t raised at the Assembly hearing. It was pursued at the Senate hearing – but state Treasurer Ford Scudder wasn’t able to provide many answers when pressed by Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, and others.
Asked for an itemized list of work, Scudder said, “Until we’ve gone and issued bonds, we can’t begin engaging the design firm to do that work, which will then dictate exactly what all those projects are. So at this stage it’s impossible for me to give you a line-by-line breakout of what things would cost because we’re just not at that point in the process yet.”
Asked for detail about the role the state Economic Development Authority will play, Scudder said, “We’re still working through the precise constellation of that, senator, so I don’t have a firm answer for you on that at this point in time.”
Asked what state agencies must approve the plan, and whether the Legislature must give its approval, Scudder said: “We’re still working with bond counsel through what the precise steps are. We’ll see once we’ve worked through it all what the steps are.”
Scudder said emergency repairs are underway already, using bond proceeds left over from a prior project. But that money can only be used on the exterior of the building, he said.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, asked repeatedly about the still-developing plans.
“It’s a significant amount of money. Do we have to sign on? Do we approve it? It’s not in the form of legislation that I know,” Van Drew said. “How does this work? How does this money – who authorizes this? Is it purely the executive branch that has the authority to do that?”
Scudder gave Van Drew a similar answer to what he told Greenstein.
“We’re working with bond counsel through exactly what steps that needs to take. It’s not a finalized process at this point in time,” Scudder said.
“I’m not trying to give you a hard time. It’s not my nature, so don’t take this the wrong way,” Van Drew said. “We’re going forward with it, but at this point we really actually do not know how the process is going to look for doing the renovations to the Statehouse is what you’re telling me.”
“Not completely, correct. Yeah,” Scudder said.
“OK,” Van Drew answered. “Do we have a little idea?”
“We are working towards it, and we’ll hopefully be crystalizing that soon,” said the treasurer.
When Scudder reiterated that he didn’t know what approvals the project needs because the state’s bond counsel was still reviewing that, Van Drew interjected for the last time.
“This is one of the very few things I know of that you and I have an equal amount of knowledge,” he said. “On just about everything else, you’ve got a whole lot more. But, OK.”
Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden, said the administration should provide whatever spending details it can.
“How did you come up with the $300 million if you cannot give us an idea how we’re going to spend the money? How’d that $300 million come about?” Cruz-Perez asked.
“We have professionals at the Division of Property Management and Construction whose job it is to manage projects of this type,” Scudder said. “They have internally built their estimates of what we believe the restoration would cost, and that’s where that number comes from.”
“At least give us that idea to us, so we can understand better and explain to the people when we’re asked on the street why you are spending so much money on renovation to the Statehouse, I want to be able to tell my constituents and the people in New Jersey, this is why,” Cruz-Perez said.