For more than 20 years, states have quickly adopted most building safety features blessed by the Washington-based nonprofit that recommends minimum codes for the nation but that’s not what happened after the International Code Council decided in 2008 that every new American home should have fire sprinklers.
Housing industry trade groups poured money into lobbying and political contributions. Their well-to-do members strong-armed local officials or dazzled them with hometown projects.
Their efforts set out a playbook for how influential business interests are winning in state capitals across the country. The housing industry spent more than $517 million on state politics in the last decade, second only to lawyers, according to numbers compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
To date, industry groups have helped block efforts to make sprinkler systems mandatory in new homes in at least 25 states. Only California and Maryland, along with dozens of cities, have adopted the International Code Council’s recommendation and required the devices.
ProPublica published a detailed investigation of how the fight played out in South Carolina.
The New Jersey legislature passed bills requiring residential sprinklers in 2014 and 2015, both times with roughly 60 percent majorities in each chamber.
The first time Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill by not signing it. The next time, he issued a conditional veto, stripping the legislation of its central component, the mandate.
The author of both measures, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat from Sayreville, headed up the transportation committee investigating the governor’s involvement in the Fort Lee lane closure scandal.
After Christie blocked his bill a second time, Wisniewski said he couldn’t “help but wonder if he burned the bill because he doesn’t like the sponsor.”
Wisniewski called the veto by Christie, who raised money from housing industry donors both as a candidate and head of the Republican Governors Association, “a slap in the face to a community of public safety officials who have endorsed, supported and fought for this legislation.”
In his veto message, Christie said he rejected adding thousands of dollars to the cost of new homes as “citizens continue the struggle to rebuild their lives after Superstorm Sandy.”
He did, however, request that state officials review the cost of requiring sprinklers in townhomes, where fires can more easily jump from one unit to the next.
His spokesman denied that any animosity between the governor and the bill’s sponsor played a role in the veto, although it was Wisniewski who led the investigation into Christie’s Bridgegate scandal, which tanked his presidential ambitions.
In 2015, the state’s builders and Realtors spent almost $748,000 lobbying — which together ranks them sixth in spending.