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With Week to Go, Open-Space Ballot Question Continues to Be Divisive

Perennially popular program proving to be a hard sell in tighter economic climate

open space meadow

With only a week before voters go to the polls to decide on an open-space preservation plan, seldom has such a proposal caused as much of a rift on this issue -- one widely embraced in the past.

Not this time.

Gov. Chris Christie told reporters in August he would vote against the ballot question, which dedicates at least $71 million a year from the corporate business tax to finance the program. The governor said it would be irresponsible to earmark money for this cause. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said he also will vote no, according to Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the agency.

The DEP’s opposition mirrors opposition from a frequent critic of the agency. Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the Koch brothers, also opposes the ballot question, although for far different reasons. The Kochs fund a range of groups that oppose measures intended to reduce climate change and promote renewable energy.

The open-space legislation aims to provide money for a program that is virtually bankrupt, yet historically backed by voters. But for all that, it is opposed by some environmentalists.

They agree with the DEP’s assertions that the measure would divert needed funds from environmental programs currently funded by the corporate business tax, including hazardous site cleanups, monitoring water quality in the ocean and other waterways, and keeping tabs on water supply in aquifers to prepare for drought.

“If passed, the amendment would seriously undermine existing programs that protect the environment and create conditions necessary for economic growth,’’ Robin Madden, an assistant DEP commissioner for natural and historic resources, said in a backgrounder provided to reporters and others.

The stance by both the DEP and the governor is unusual. In the past, voters approved 13 different open-space bond issues on the ballot, typically with the unequivocal support from the agency and the executive branch. With the state facing much more difficult fiscal problems, however, a bond that would add to the state’s debt is a much tougher sell in the Legislature and to the administration.

The governor’s opposition comes despite his pledge during his initial run for office that he would come up with a stable source of funding to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures. His administration never produced such a plan, despite repeated assertions by Martin to lawmakers that a proposal had been sent to the governor.

In response, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, sponsored a measure SCR-84 to divert existing money from the corporate business tax -- money already dedicated to other environmental programs. Initially, it would raise $71 million, but that would increase to up to $117 million in 2020 when the diversion of corporate business taxes would increase from 4 percent to 6 percent.

Backers of the measure concede the ballot question could cause pain in the short term, but would benefit those environmental programs now being funded by the tax in the long term.

Funding for corporate business taxes would drop to $5 million from the current $15 million for water monitoring and other activities; hazardous site cleanups at old industrial sites would fall from $25 million to $10 million; and other contaminated site cleanups would decline from $28 million to just $5 million.

Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep it Green Coalition, said over the long term, as corporate business taxes increase, funding for those environmental programs would climb. The coalition, comprising nearly 200 conservation groups, has been the main advocate for the ballot question.

“While programs will be pinched in the short run, they will grow in the future,’’ Gilbert predicted. He added that corporate business taxes are not the only way to fund these programs, a view held by other advocates of the open-space ballot question.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a supporter of the ballot question, conceded that the measure is not perfect, but argued critics of the proposal are giving the governor additional excuses to raid the DEP’s existing funds to balance repeated shortfalls in the state budget.

“DEP has plenty of money, but it keeps being diverted to balance the budget,’’ Tittel said, citing diversion of $140 million from the dioxin cleanup of the Passaic River, which included recycling and other efforts.

Asked whether the question will be the first to fail, Tittel said he did not know if it is in trouble, but “I have never seen this much traffic against it.’’

Americans for Prosperity is trying to make that happen, according to Mike Proto, communications director of the organization. He said the group plans to run $60,000 worth of radio ads advocating a “no” vote on the ballot question.

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