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Christie Won't Go for Sales-Tax Scheme to Fund Open-Space Preservation

Tom Johnson | December 16, 2013

Governor dismisses mechanism as a 'bad idea,' sends lawmakers back to come up with another proposal

chris christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

The options to fund preservation of New Jersey's open spaces and farmland are diminishing.

In a press conference on Friday, Gov. Chris Christie ruled out a proposal being pushed in the state Senate that would divert up to $200 million in sales tax revenue each year over 30 years to protect open space and farmland and to preserve historic structures.

“I think it’s a bad idea,’’ Christie said in a response to a question about the proposal -- one being lobbied for by a wide coalition of conservation, recreational, and farm groups. “Belly up to the bar and come up with a better idea.’’

The proposal, (SCR-165), cleared the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on Thursday with bipartisan support. On the same day the Assembly Budget Committee cleared, also with Republicans backing, a Democratic bill, (A-4581), that would ask voters to approve a $200 million bond issue on the ballot this fall. Christie did not offer his view on that proposal, which is backed by some environmental organizations.

The governor’s comments add to the question of whether the state will come up with a plan to fund its widely popular open-space program, which is virtually broke.

Christie, who vowed to come up with a stable source of funding during his first run for governor four years ago, has yet to do so.

In the nation’s most densely populated state, the issue enjoys strong support from environmental and nonprofit organizations, as well as towns and counties, for the money it supplies to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures. In addition, the fund provides desperately needed money to buy out flood-prone homes, a need dramatically underscored by Hurricane Sandy just over a year ago, according to advocates.

In approving the $200 million bond issue last week, lawmakers conceded it would be a stopgap measure, but one that would provide the opportunity to work on an acceptable stable funding source that could win passage in the Legislature. They criticized the Senate proposal to divert $200 million in sales tax revenue over 30 years as being too risky in a state careening from one fiscal crisis to another.

The New Jersey Environmental Federation and New Jersey Sierra Club -- two prominent critics of the Republican governor -- also opposed the sales tax mechanism, saying it could lead to cuts in what they say are already strapped environmental programs administered by state Department of Environmental Protection.

Christie echoed that view, without mentioning any groups, at his Statehouse press conference on Friday. “I suspect they won’t like what I decide to cut,’’ the governor said.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the sales tax measure, argued that the governor already has the authority to redline any appropriation he wants. The constitutional amendment he is pushing would not change that, Smith said.

If Smith could have his resolution approved by both houses, it would go on the ballot in the fall, regardless of the governor’s opposition. The chance of that happening seems unlikely, given that many, if not most, Republicans will bow to the governor’s will. In addition, the Assembly, also controlled by Democrats, refused to post a similar measure Smith sponsored earlier in the legislative session.

While many view the bond issue as simply adding to the debt of a state straddled with long-term borrowing costs, advocates say open-space issues have proven successful with voters, who have approved 13 measures since 1961.

NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of 185 organizations, argued otherwise, saying it simply delays addressing long-term-open space funding for another year.

“With a backlog of projects across the state that need financial support, failure to pass long-term funding puts at risk hundreds of thousands of acres that keep our drinking water clean, helps protect against flooding, provides locally grown farm-fresh food, and supports local and regional economies,’’ said Kelly Mooij, coordinator of the coalition.

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