Scheme to Dedicate Sales Tax Revenue to Preserve Open Land Seems to Be Early Favorite

Tom Johnson | February 5, 2013 | Energy & Environment
Senate committee fails to move on any bills, some members worry about using general fund to finance preservation initiative

Open space
With backing from a much-respected former Republican lawmaker and most of the environmental community, a consensus appears to be emerging to dedicate $200 million a year in state sales tax revenue to preserve open space and farmland.

Whether that idea flies with the Christie administration and Democratic-controlled Legislature remains to be seen, but the proposal was by far the most heavily endorsed of three options floated yesterday at a Senate Environment and Energy Committee hearing on how to finance an essentially broke open-space and farmland preservation program.

“It’s our job to put this issue on the table,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee and sponsor of three different bills to continue open-space and farmland preservation efforts. None of the three bills on the committee’s agenda were acted on, but Smith said he hopes the issue comes front and center in this fall’s gubernatorial election.

The issue is a recurring one for policymakers. New Jersey voters have always approved open-space bond issues, ranging in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But conservation groups have lobbied for many years, mostly unsuccessfully, to create a stable source of funding to protection undeveloped land in the state.

In holding the hearing, Smith noted that it would be “nice’’ to know where the governor’s office stands on the issue. His three bills also include a $400 million proposed bond issue (S-2530) and a proposal to finance open space with a new tax on water consumption (S-813), both of which were mostly criticized by various speakers.

“We’d be happy to see a little leadership from our leaders to see what works,’’ Smith said.

Nevertheless, the way the committee hearing unfolded seemed to indicate an orchestrated effort behind the scenes to garner support for the sales tax scheme (S-2529), which would set aside $200 million annually for 30 years. That is the sum most conservation groups argue is needed to preserve undeveloped lands and agricultural property.

Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Somerset), a committee member, responding to Smith’s comment about the governor’s office, said he expected Gov. Chris Christie to address the issue in his annual budget message later this month. In addition, many of the conservation groups that favor the sales tax initiative are unlikely to support bills without backing from the administration, in part because some of their funding comes from the open-space initiatives.

The sales tax initiative also won the endorsement of former Assemblywoman Maureen Ogden, a Republican who has long been one of the state’s leading proponents of open-space preservation and someone who has been effective in working with Democrats. Smith called Ogden his “heroine.’’ Only one of the bills will provide a stable source of funding for 30 years, Ogden said, in urging passage of the sales tax initiative.

Many environmentalists echoed her view. “It does it all. It does it long-term,’’ said Eileen Swann, policy director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and a former executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Council.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin has discussed developing a stable source of funding based on sales tax revenue with various conservation groups. He has never made the proposal public, apparently because of the state’s ongoing budgetary problems. Asked about the issue, Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, said “Gov. Christie is well aware of the issue and is considering options for open-space funding.’’

But the idea of dedicating $200 million in sales tax revenue out of the general fund worried some environmentalists. With the state still facing huge budgetary problems, they fear that diverting the funds would mean additional cuts to current environmental programs, as well as others.

“It will give the Christie administration the excuse to eliminate environmental programs, as well as education and healthcare programs,’’ said Jeff Tittel, who along with the New Jersey Environmental Federation endorsed a bill that would impose a new tax on water consumption to fund opens space preservation efforts. That bill would cost the typical resident about $32 a year, but much more for water-intensive businesses.

Smith conceded each of the three bills has its “pluses and minuses.’’ The proposed bond issue adds to the state’s debt burden, which is now at $70 billion, he said. The sales tax initiative takes $200 million out of state government, which he said is essentially broke. “You make it more broke,’’ Smith said.

But Kelly Mooij, coordinator of the Keep It Green Coalition, said the dedication of $200 million in sales tax revenue represents approximately less than 1 percent of the overall state revenues.