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Open-Space Constitutional Amendment Could Be on November Ballot

Sales-tax scheme to fund open-space preservation sails through Senate, Assembly vote still to come.

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With strong bipartisan support, the Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved a measure that would ask voters to divert more than $200 million a year from the state’s sales tax to fund open-space preservation.

If approved by the Assembly by a similar margin -- a question that remains highly uncertain -- the legislation (SCR-138) would be on the ballot this November seeking voter approval.

The proposal is viewed by most environmental organizations as the best way to finance preservation of open space, farmland, and historic structures, given the fact that funding for those projects has been all but exhausted from a bond issue approved by voters in 2009.

With virtually no debate, the Senate approved the resolution, with only two Republican lawmakers casting negative votes, despite the measure’s significant fiscal implications.

In a fiscal note prepared earlier this month by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, the proposal to dedicate a small portion of the state’s sales tax to fund open-space preservation would drain about $17 billion from the general fund over 30 years.

The measure also would siphon off significantly more than the $200 million a year cited by its advocates, according to the OLS. In fiscal year 2015, the loss in sales tax revenue to the general fund would be about $275 million; in fiscal year 2016, the loss would run approximately $288 million; and, in fiscal year 2017, the cost would top $301 million, according to the OLS.

The legislation proposes a constitutional amendment to dedicate one-fifth of one cent of the state’s 7 percent sales tax for open space, farmland, and historic preservation annually for 30 years.

The NJ Keep It Green organization, a coalition of more than 180 park and conservation groups, applauded the action by the Senate and urged the Assembly to follow suit.

“Although New Jersey has long been a leader among states in supporting land and water conservation, there is no sustainable source of funding for these programs moving forward, putting decades of successful preservation efforts at risk of being derailed,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green coalition.

In the Democratic Assembly caucus, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) yesterday made a spirited plea to post the measure (he is a co-sponsor of the Assembly version of the bill) before lawmakers break for their summer recess, according to legislative sources.

Gilbert said his organization has no commitments from legislative leadership to move the bill forward in the Assembly prior to the lawmakers’ summer recess. “It would be a travesty if it’s not given a vote,’’ he said. “This is the approach that is on the table. We’re hopeful the Assembly will follow suit.’’

New Jersey voters have consistently supported efforts to preserve open space, passing 13 out of 13 ballot measures supportive of the effort.

Nonetheless, the measure poses difficult choices for both lawmakers and the Christie administration. With the state enmeshed in recurring budget crises, can it afford to divert more than $200 million a year from the sales tax, one of the biggest sources of revenue in New Jersey?

Also, Gov. Chris Christie pledged during his successful gubernatorial campaign to enact a stable source of funding for open space preservation, a promise he, so far, has failed to deliver on. If the Assembly passes the measure by an overwhelming margin, the decision will be up to voters in November, no matter what the governor’s views on diversion of sales tax are.

Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset), a cosponsor of the measure, said New Jersey is in desperate need of a stable source of funding to preserve open spaces.

“With current allocations to preservation now running on empty, the state is at risk of endangering future preservation efforts,’’ Bateman said in a press release issued by the GOP Senate office.

Some environmental groups argued otherwise, including the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Given the shortfall in the budget and the cuts that are already occurring, an open-space dedication could undercut other programs not only this year but in decades moving forward, according to Jeff Tittel, the group's director.

“It is not only fiscally irresponsible, it will lead to more cuts and more rollbacks of environmental programs,’’ argued Tittel.

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