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Open-Space Funding Debate Spills Over Into New Legislative Term

State senator tries again with plan to fund preservation program with $200M in sales-tax revenue

open space

It didn’t fly in the last legislative session, but a prominent state senator is quickly reviving a bill, SCR-2, that seeks to meet the state’s open-space preservation needs by dedicating up to $200 million a year in sales tax revenue to the cause.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who championed the bill unsuccessfully in the session that ended earlier this month, has posted an identical measure for the new term’s first meeting of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee next Monday. Smith is chairman of the panel.

His proposal is likely to renew an acrimonious debate over how the state should pay to set aside open space and farmland, as well as preserve historic structures. The program was widely popular in the past, but is virtually broke after years of inaction by the Legislature and Christie administration.

Smith’s measure is backed by a broad coalition of conservation and recreation groups, who view the proposal as providing a long-term source of funding, something the state has lacked for years.

The proposal, however, is opposed by some of New Jersey’s most active environmental groups, who fear using sales-tax revenue for the open-space program will divert funding from other important environmental programs.

The disagreement also splits Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature. In the Assembly, many lawmakers share the concerns of the Sierra Club of New Jersey and New Jersey Environmental Federation that the state cannot afford to divert up to $200 million a year in sales tax revenue out of a budget typically facing shortfalls.

The Assembly refused to post Smith’s measure in the previous session, instead passing a bill that would have put a $200 million bond issue on the ballot this November. That legislation never moved in the upper house, meeting the same fate that Smith’s proposal met in the Assembly.

The stalemate begs the question of what has changed, if anything, in the past couple of weeks.

“I just don’t get it,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He noted on Friday that newly released numbers show the expected state revenues were down from what had been previously projected. “Three times, this bill hasn’t got anywhere,’’ he said.

Proponents of Smith’s new bill remained optimistic, however.

“What hasn’t changed is the Senate’s commitment to this approach,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green Coalition, which has more than 180 groups supporting the effort to use sales tax revenue to fund open space. “It clearly establishes it as a priority. We’re really encouraged by that.’’

Gilbert also noted that the leadership of the Assembly has changed with Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) assuming the speakership, taking over from former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). “Hopefully, the new year brings a way to get this over the hump,’’ he said.

Tittel discounted the significance of that change, noting Prieto was opposed to using sales-tax revenue to fund open space when he was chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.

Dave Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, agreed.

“I don’t think anything’s changed,’’ Pringle said, although he added that he hoped Smith’s bill would spur the opposing sides to compromise.

Gilbert, however, said he believes there is an opportunity to work with the new speaker.

“The challenge that remains is to get the Senate and Assembly on the same page,’’ he said.

The other test is getting the governor’s office behind whatever proposal, if any, is agreed upon by both houses. Christie vowed to establish a stable source of open-space funding when he ran for office for the first time in 2009, but he has failed to fulfill that pledge. He does not support Smith’s plan to siphon off money from the sales tax.

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