Critics Want Christie’s State House Repairs Halted. Governor Says, ‘I Don’t Care.’

TRENTON — Beneath the gilded dome, windows are boarded up, and some have frames held together with clips and duct tape. The roof leaks. Paint is chipping. Masonry is cracked.

The deteriorating condition of the State House, parts of which were built when George Washington was president, has been apparent for years, and it was something that was groused about and worked around.

As Gov. Chris Christie enters the waning months of his tenure, he has seized upon the state of the State House, vowing to leave behind better conditions for his successor. He has described the long-delayed overhaul of the offices where he has worked for nearly eight years as the kind of politically fraught project that only a second-term governor could take on.

His handling of the renovation has been a display of the brash style that many in New Jersey know well, whether recalling his pugnacious defense during the George Washington Bridge scandal or his public evisceration of officials in struggling Atlantic City as he threatened a state takeover.

Since last year, Mr. Christie has pursued a $300 million renovation of the State House, and his method of going about it has set off a political fight that has led to lawsuits and bipartisan criticism accusing him of bypassing public input. The governor has responded with unsparing appraisals of what he has called tenement-like working conditions, and has waved off his critics with a familiar tone of annoyance and disdain.

“Yeah, I don’t care,” Mr. Christie said brusquely when the backlash to the renovations was raised in a recent radio appearance. “They’re going nowhere.”

The State House is among the oldest continuously used capitol buildings in the United States, first built in 1792. Over time, a vast H-shaped complex emerged around the tiny original, sprouting wings and adding the gold-leaf rotunda. State officials said parts of the building were showing their age and warned that their concerns went beyond aesthetics, noting the absence of an automatic sprinkler system.

In a news conference this year, Mr. Christie called it a “firetrap,” and in a radio interview, he said the “building is falling apart.”

His critics have trained most of their ire at the way Mr. Christie has gone about funding the renovation, accusing him of circumventing the legislature and saddling a state already weighed down by debt with hundreds of millions of dollars more.

In the race to replace Mr. Christie, it has become a rare issue on which there is virtually unanimous agreement — the renovation should not go ahead. Kim Guadagno, the lieutenant governor and the Republican candidate for governor, has urged Mr. Christie to scrap what she described as a plan that would transform the State House into the “Palace of Versailles.”

“The governor’s claims of a dire emergency that needs to be addressed immediately don’t pass the history or the smell test,” said Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully in the primary g for governor. “None of these things are new. All of these things existed.”

He added, “He’s basically saying the ends justify the means.”

A renovation of the legislative portion of the building in the late 1980s added office space and corrected structural and electrical deficiencies. In the 1990s, the capitol’s dome was restored, using money raised by schoolchildren through a “Dimes for the Dome” program.

But it has been decades since the part of the building that includes the executive offices has had any sort of comprehensive renovation, state officials said. That section was constructed over several building campaigns that spanned centuries, and included what made up the original State House.

Experts hired by the state found that the building had crumbling chimneys and skylights that exceeded their “safe and useful life.” Parts of the facade have deteriorated. Combustible materials, like old roofing, have been left behind in the attics from previous construction projects.

State lawmakers had previously approved a $38 million renovation to repair the facade, replace roofs, fix fire escapes and improve the air-conditioning system. But experts suggested that a more extensive rehabilitation was necessary, and Mr. Christie has said anything less would be a temporary solution.

“No more Band-Aids,” he said.

Instead of returning to the legislature to ask for more money, the administration went to a relatively obscure board that controls the State House and related property. The board, the State Capitol Joint Management Commission, which consists of representatives from the executive and legislative branches of government, agreed to lease the building to the state’s Economic Development Authority. The authority has issued bonds to fund the improvements, and the state, in turn, will pay rent to the authority to cover the cost of the improvements.

Last month, the authority approved the bonds, which were quietly sold the same day.

Several lawmakers from both parties responded by filing lawsuits, arguing that the governor needed the approval of the legislature or from voters and that the process had skirted substantial public input. Some have complained that it was unclear how the $300 million would be spent.

Philip D. Murphy, the Democratic candidate for governor, described Mr. Christie’s actions in a statement as “an insult and an exercise in arrogance.”

Critics also balked at the debt, which some lawmakers estimated could ultimately cost taxpayers close to $700 million. New Jersey has one of the lowest credit ratings in the country; it has been downgraded 11 times during the Christie administration.

“Quite frankly, the legislature feels slighted, and taxpayers feel the same way,” said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican who lost in the primary for governor. “From the very beginning, I said the governor’s plan was hasty and lacked resourcefulness and innovation. The fact of the matter is, the State of New Jersey cannot afford another penny of debt.”

Mr. Christie has dismissed the criticism as political grandstanding, telling reporters that the process had been “done in a completely proper, legal way.” None of his most vocal critics, he has said, including his lieutenant governor, have sought a briefing from his office on the severity of the problems.

Construction is set to start this summer, and a spokesman said the governor and his staff had moved about a week ago to temporary offices near the State House. The project is scheduled to last four years.

In one of his regular “Ask the Governor” radio appearances, Mr. Christie recently said he figured he would have the last laugh.

“Whoever the governor is at the time will preside over some grand reopening of the State House with incredibly laudatory comments about how state of the art it is,” he said, describing the better internet access and improved safety for workers and visitors.

“And whoever the governor is will take deep bows as he or she moves back into their office,” Mr. Christie continued. “And I’ll sit back, wherever I am at the time in New Jersey, whatever I’m doing at the time, and I will have a hearty chuckle.”

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