Part of pollution settlements could go to New Jersey's general fund under Christie proposal

Cash from environmental settlements like an Exxon Mobil payout in an oil and chemical contamination case could once again pad the state's general fund under Republican Gov. Chris Christie's latest budget proposal.

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Christie's idea is a holdover from last year's budget but comes as he endures waves of criticism from Democratic lawmakers over the recent settlement with Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp. for $225 million despite court documents showing damages potentially worth $8.9 billion. Democrats said Christie, a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, shortchanged taxpayers.

The new proposal calls for the first $50 million of natural-resources settlements to go toward cleanup, with the rest going into the general fund. Christie has said Exxon Mobil is on the hook for cleanup efforts beyond the $225 million settlement.

Assembly Democrats are holding a hearing on the settlement next week, and Senate Democrats are planning to vote on a resolution rejecting it.

Democrats who control the Legislature already have signaled they plan to oppose the governor's proposal.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, chairman of the Budget Committee, said he and Senate President Steve Sweeney would introduce a bill that calls for half of the proceeds from environmental settlements be used for cleanup, with the rest going into the general fund.

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The Exxon Mobil settlement, announced last week by the acting attorney general, stems from a 2004 lawsuit claiming the company's petroleum refineries in Linden and Bayonne polluted land and water.

Acting Attorney General John Hoffman said in a statement last week that no money will be collected at least until the start of fiscal year 2016, which begins on July 1, and is subject to the budget process.

Lawmakers began hearings on the governor's proposal this week.

News of the proposal was first reported by the Asbury Park Press on Thursday.