Christie said the legislation would help protect customers from enduring extended outages like the ones that occurred after Hurricane Irene dumped 12 inches of rain on the state a year ago or the freak October snowstorm that downed trees and power lines two months later.
Some customers waited longer than a week before power was restored. The Republican governor then ordered the Board of Public Utilities to review of the performance of the four utilities regulated by the state - PSE&G, JCP&L, ACE and Rockland Electric - and recommend improvements, which it issued in a report Wednesday. The governor's legislation is a mirror of the board's recommendations.
"Before and since the storms occurred, I made it clear that this administration is committed to improving the level of preparedness of public utilities, to ensure that service is as reliable as possible and that we're prepared and ready as possible to respond to any event that can cause damage," Christie said.
The proposed legislation would allow regulators to impose financial penalties "with real teeth," as Christie put it, to utilities with slow post-storm responses - up to $25,000 per day, compared with $100 a day now, to a maximum of $2 million. The pending bill would bar the power companies from passing punitive costs onto ratepayers, Christie said.
The legislation also would require additional storm planning and set standards for service reliability and restoration of power after disruptions.
Though the bill hasn't been drafted, Christie predicted - correctly, as it turned out - that he'd have no trouble garnering bipartisan support for it.
Republican Sens. Joe Pennacchio, of Morris County, and Kevin O'Toole, of Bergen County, quickly agreed to be prime sponsors, and Assembly Democrat Upendra Chivukula, who chairs the chamber's Telecommunications and Utilities Committee, welcomed the governor's plan, which he said is similar to legislation he's already introduced. His bill, introduced in May, requires state regulators to establish uniform statewide reliability standards for electric and gas companies and allows for the imposition of fines for violations.
The governor was particularly critical of JCP&L after Irene, calling the utility's storm response "deficient." On Wednesday, utility spokesman Ron Morano said the company has since improved how it responds to major storms.
"Since last August, JCP&L added line crews and operations managers, invested $200 million in the reliability of the distribution and transmission system and adopted new procedures and technology," Morano said in a statement. "The company also is providing more frequent and better information to local officials and customers before and during outages."
A preliminary review by the BPU in December recommended that the utilities add more staff during storms, use social media to keep customers informed and reach out to those with disabilities and health issues.