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The Quest for Reliable Open-Space Funding -- So Little Time, So Far to Go

Another push to get constitutional amendment for a stable source of funding on ballot, right before Legislature breaks for summer recess

open space flowers

Once again, conservationists are pressing the Legislature to approve a measure to establish a stable source of funding to preserve open space and farmland before it breaks this month for summer recess, but they are running out of time.

In a replay of last summer, the open-space advocates are trying to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot statewide to set aside state tax revenues to finance protection of open space, as well as provide money for historic preservation and buyouts of flood-prone properties.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure, (SCR-84) at either its June 26 session or June 30 session, according to Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the bill. The two sessions are the final ones before the traditional summer break.

The larger question is whether the Assembly will follow suit. An identical measure in the Assembly has yet to be considered, although it is still possible lawmakers could take it up in the last two sessions before the break.

Asked about the bill’s prospects in the chamber, Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, who hold a majority, replied in an email: “It ‘s still being discussed.’’

The issue has been a top priority of some lawmakers and conservation groups, all of which note the state has virtually no more funds for preserving land. Finding a solution that can get through the Legislature and be signed by the governor, however, has proved more troublesome. Gov. Chris Christie pledged to enact a stable source of funding for open space in his first run for office, but has not yet produced any plan.

At Monday’s Assembly session, there was a discussion about the measure, according to people familiar with the debate. With the state in a deep fiscal crisis, some question whether the state should divert revenue from taxes it collects to fund open space -- no matter how worthy the cause.

The latest version of the measure is a much-scaled back approach from what lawmakers balked at last summer. Instead of tapping into sales tax revenue, it would divert money already dedicated from corporate business taxes to other environmental programs to finance open-space preservation.

Under the current measure, $71 million, beginning in Fiscal Year 2016, would be set aside for open-space efforts, but that would increase to $117 million in Fiscal Year 2020 when the dedication of corporate business revenue would be bumped up from 4 percent to 6 percent for the program. The program would last 30 years.

The money is far less than what open-space advocates pushed for in the previous year, when they sought to divert up to $150 million for the cause to no avail.

Nevertheless, the new slimmed-down scheme still drew sharp criticism from business groups and others.

“We’re in a fiscal crisis right now, but probably it is only going to get worse,’’ said Michael Egenton, a senior vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, said at a public hearing Monday that allowed the measure to move forward.

Daryn Iwicki, state director of Americans For Prosperity, agreed. “It’s hard to buy the argument open space is priority one in our state when we are facing more pressing obligations,’’ he said.

But Eileen Swann, policy director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, disagreed.

“I would think water, air, and quality of life is a number one priority in New Jersey,’’ Swann said. All of those issues would suffer unless the state protects its open space and farmland, she argued.

Tom Gilbert, chairman of the Keep It Green Coalition, said it is time to let the voters decide on whether to fund open space. “This is something the voters deserve to have their say,’’ he said. The coalition consists of more than 185 park and conservation groups working to develop a long-term funding source for open-space preservation and other programs.

Despite the lack of movement in the Assembly, Gilbert remains hopeful the measure can win approval. “There’s a lot of support for it in the caucus,’’ he said. “The optimist in me says they haven’t said "No" yet.’’

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