Voters yesterday approved two ballot questions -- one to replenish a virtually bankrupt open-space preservation program and the other to make fundamental changes to who is eligible for bail and who is not in New Jersey.
Both questions, which would amend the state’s constitution, proved controversial.
Unlike previous open-space ballot questions, even among environmental groups who typically back such proposals in unison.
Still, it passed comfortably as did the question on bail reform, which would allow low-level defendants who cannot afford to post bail to be released without it. More controversially,to those accused of more serious violent crimes, such as murder, kidnapping, and robbery -- among other offenses.
In not-yet-final tallies, both questions seemed assured of passage, with open space winning by a surprisingly margin of 64.6 percent of voters supporting the issue with 35.4 percent opposed. The bail reform question also passed with nearly 62 percent of voters backing the measure.
For open-space advocates, the passage of the constitutional amendment capped a long and difficult fight to establish a so-called stable source of funding to preserve undeveloped land, farmland, and historic structures. It is not as much money that has been spent in the past, but it provides funding over a 30-year period by dedicating a portion of corporate business taxes to the effort.
Initially, it would provide about $71 million annually -- far less than the state typically spent on open space, which often ran up to $200 million a year. Beginning in 2020, a bigger portion of the corporate business taxes would increase the amount to at least $117 million.
Some environmentalists, however, opposed the measure, saying it would deprive money currently dedicated to existing environmental programs for hazardous waste cleanups, water-quality monitoring, and making sure that the water supply in aquifers is not depleted. Those same concerns were raised by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Gov. Chris Christie also opposed the diversion of funds, saying he would vote against the proposal.
Those objections were not enough to override historic support for open-space preservation on ballot questions in the past, which mostly relied on bonding to fund the effort -- even though that is more costly than a pay-as-you-go program. With the state debt levels rising, most lawmakers wanted to avoid that approach even if it meant diverting money from the general fund at a time of periodic budget crises .
“It finally puts a stable source of funding in place,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green Coalition.
“This is a huge win for open space and the environment,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Voters have rejected Gov. Christie’s anti-environmental agenda.’’
Opponents of the measure disagreed.
“Approval of this question means that, starting in a few years, New Jersey will be diverting about $1.5 billion every decade that would otherwise go to the state’s pressing needs,’’ said Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning think tank.
Mike Proto, communications director for the New Jersey branch of Americans For Prosperity, which opposed the question, noted that his group faced an uphill battle -- given the historic support for open space by voters. He noted that his group was outspent 10-to-1 by supporters of the measure.
The bail reform question was no less contentious.
Its supporters included the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that normally advocates for the rights of the accused, saying its passage is needed to implement a bill enacted by the Christie administration that guarantees a speedy trial and release without having to post bail.
But criminal defense lawyers questioned why the right to post bail -- guaranteed by the constitution -- is being eliminated. They also questioned whether the Legislature would ever properly fund those low-level offenders released on bail who may need to be monitored to make sure they do not get in trouble with the law again.
Among other things, the changes will establish speedy trial deadlines for pre-and post-indictment for all defendants. It also changes the setting of bail from one based on the defendant’s ability to pay to one based on the likelihood the accused might flee. It also allows judges to order pretrial detention for those accused of serious crimes who are considered a flight risk or who might harm others.
Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU, praised the passage of the question.
“Within a few years, we will no longer see thousands of people languishing in New Jersey jails simply because they cannot afford to post bail,’’ Ofer said. “Society does not benefit when people are made to await trial behind bars for months or even years simply because they cannot afford a few thousand dollars in bail.’’