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New Jersey Voters Handily Ratify Two Ballot Questions

Bond issue for libraries will help them modernize and expand, while a second question prevents environmental settlements from being diverted to general budget

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Voters yesterday easily approved ballot questions that will provide funding for libraries to undertake new capital projects and will ensure money collected from polluters is used to restore natural resources damaged from spills and other disasters.

Both ballot questions faced little opposition, as the vote reflected. With almost 99 percent of the vote tallied, the library bond issue passed by nearly 300,000 votes. By roughly a two-to-one margin, voters approved the constitutional amendment to prevent diversion of pollution settlement money to the general budget.

For libraries, the passage of a $125 million bond issue to pay for modernization projects at their facilities marks the first time since 1999 the state will allocate money for that purpose.

The second ballot question involves a constitutional amendment that will end a practice long decried by conservationists and some lawmakers: the diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars from lawsuit settlements involving polluters who have contaminated the state’s waters, wetlands, and other natural resources.

With approval of the question, the money will instead be used to restore those areas damaged by the pollution, or pay attorney fees for law firms that have represented the state in lawsuits. In the past, much of the money from recent settlements involving natural-resources damage suits has gone to balance the state budget.

“Those raids are done once and for all,’’ said Ed Potosnak, director of the League of Conservation Voters for New Jersey, which spent more than $400,000 promoting the ballot question. “Voters have done an amazing job in making sure politicians can’t continue to divert money that is supposed to restore the environment.’’

When the money did go to its intended purpose, it has been used to create oyster habitat in Delaware Bay, build wetlands along Newark Bay, and demolish dams on the Raritan River.

New Jersey’s laws require corporate polluters to clean up areas where they have contaminated, but also pay to restore where spills and other accidents have damaged waterways, wetlands, and other natural areas. The lawsuits are filed under so-called natural-resources damage claims.

The library bond issue continues a trend of voters largely approving new borrowing on the part of the state even though New Jersey already has amassed $43 billion in bonded debt. The proposal, however, won wide bipartisan support and backing from the New Jersey Business & Industry Association and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

“We see this as a transformative referendum for libraries,’’ said Patricia Tumulty, head of the New Jersey Library Association. The last time a bond issue for libraries was approved 18 years ago, it funded 68 projects through a $45 million bond issue, Tumulty said.

The bond issue will fund 50 percent of a library’s project cost with the balance coming from either local or private sources. Since the last bond issue was approved, local support for libraries has fallen by an average 12 percent, according to Tumulty.

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