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Christie’s Budget Diverts $20M in ‘Green’ Funds, Sets Stage for Familiar Fight

If administration gets its way, funds to preserve open space will go instead to paying salaries and maintenance in state parks

heron open space

Nearly $20 million in corporate business taxes is paying for management and salaries at state parks this year -- a practice the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services claims is not authorized under language in the current budget approved by lawmakers.

If Gov. Chris Christie gets his way, next year’s budget will divert another $20 million from an open-space and farmland preservation program to manage the park system once again, setting up a new dispute between the executive and legislative branches over how environmental funds are spent.

The amount that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is using to manage its park system reflects about one-quarter of the $80 million dedicated from corporate business taxes for the acquisition program annually, which was approved by voters in a November 2104 constitutional amendment.

The dispute appears to revolve around powers granted to the governor and Legislature under the state constitution and the difference between appropriating funds and expending public money.

Although procedural in nature, the fight is important given that the level of funding for open-space and other preservation efforts is less than half of what the state typically spent in past years. Before voters easily passed the constitutional amendment, the state had spent in excess of $200 million each year, largely the result of borrowing.

No one disputes that the parks need to be funded; the debate is about how. In the past, parks management was financed through the general fund from money collected from various taxes and surcharges. When Christie proposed using a portion of the corporate business taxes dedicated for open space, lawmakers objected, and instead suggested using money from the states Clean Energy Fund.

Christie line-item vetoed the language concerning the Clean Energy Fund to “preserve the original intent’’ of his recommendations in his budget appropriation. But an opinion by OLS’s legal counsel said the governor can only expend money appropriated by the Legislature. In this case, no such language dealing with funding parks management was approved.

“It is the opinion of Legislative Counsel that there is no authorization for the Governor to expend funds for Parks Management from the constitutionally dedicated corporation business tax revenues,’’ the counsel said. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the ballot question and one of the strongest advocates for open space, requested the opinion from the OLS.

The Christie administration disagreed with the OLS opinion. “This was a completely permissible use of these funds that is also consistent with the constitutional amendment approved by a majority of voters,’’ said Joseph Perone, a spokesman for the Treasury Department.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued otherwise. “Voters thought it was going to open space and farmland preservation and protection of historic structures; not for salaries at DEP. This administration has put less money into open space than any governor since this program began almost 65 years ago,’’ he said.

Tittel and other environmentalists have been critical of the administration for diverting funds from other environmental programs to help keep the state budget balanced. Since taking office, the administration has used more than $1 billion in clean-energy funds to plug budget deficits, excluding another $112 million in next year’s proposed spending plan. Lawmakers have gone along with those diversions in past budgets.

Meanwhile, a bill is moving through the Legislature that would appropriate $146 million over the next two years for open space, farmland preservation, and protection of historic structures. Conservationists and others say it is important for the bill to be approved because some of the programs have run out of funding.

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