The problem with "dedicated" funds is that they're not. Lawmakers like to declare that certain fees and taxes can only be used in certain ways. But when it comes down to it, that language doesn't mean much - not when there's a budget to balance.
Take, for instance, the Clean Energy Fund. Financed by a 3 percent charge on utility bills, the fund is supposed to help residents weatherize their homes and replace inefficient appliances that waste energy.
Gov. Chris Christie has raided the fund to plug holes in each of his budgets. His predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine, took $30 million from the fund in 2009. But Christie and the Legislature have since used the money as a rainy-day fund. Earlier this year, Christie's budget proposal included a $152 million transfer from the Clean Energy Fund. Last week, the Board of Public Utilities said it had learned the diversion would actually be $10 million more.
Over his time in office, Christie has taken hundreds of millions of dollars from the fund. If you include money diverted from other programs intended to help the environment and promote green energy, the total could reach $1 billion.
That's a lot of money diverted from energy programs by a governor who continues to push for a tax cut.
New Jersey ratepayers are footing the bill for energy efficiency programs that they're not getting. And they're losing money in another way. Environment New Jersey says that every dollar invested in energy efficiency can save consumers $4 in energy costs. If the funds aren't available for that investment, the savings aren't either.
And don't forget, the original intention of these energy programs was to help stimulate the state economy. People who upgrade their appliances help support retailers, and retrofitting homes to make them more energy-efficient creates jobs. That's another benefit lost without adequate funding.
A more robust clean energy program could have been a big help to residents who had to replace windows and appliances after Hurricane Sandy.
Ideally, this money should be used for clean energy programs. But short of amending the state Constitution, there's not much that can be done to keep future governors and lawmakers from raiding so-called dedicated funds.
So maybe it's time to take another look at the Clean Energy Fund and the surcharge that finances it. If the money isn't going to be used as it was intended - or if the fund's surplus is too tempting a target at budget time - then the surcharge should either be reduced or eliminated.
Otherwise, it just appears to be a dishonest form of taxation.