With Budget Clock Ticking, Path to Preserve Open Space Remains Elusive

Tom Johnson | February 15, 2013 | Energy & Environment
Environmentalists and lawmakers struggle to find way to fund Green Acres, without adding to debt load

With Gov. Chris Christie scheduled to deliver the annual budget message later this month, the debate about how to fund new parks, preserve open space, and protect farmland from development is beginning to heat up.

Hoping to build a case for setting aside state revenue to preserve open space, a coalition of conservation groups yesterday [link:http://www.outdoorindustry.org/advocacy/recreation/economy.html|
cited a new study] purporting to show that outdoor recreation generates billions of dollars in revenue for New Jersey each year.

The study by the Outdoor Industry Association said that folks enjoying the great doors in the Garden State account for $17.8 billion in consumer spending annually; generate $6.1 billion in wages and salaries; and contribute $1.36 billion in state and local tax revenue, as well as directly creating 158,000 jobs.

The national study may offer some ammunition to a drive by the Keep It Green campaign to convince the state Legislature and Christie administration to set aside $200 million in sales tax revenue to be used to protect open space and preserve farmland.

The coalition is hoping the proposal (S-2560) is the preferred choice for open space preservation of three options pending in the Legislature. The other options include a $400 million bond issue (S-2530), which would be placed before voters in November, and a new tax on water consumption (S-813), which would cost residents about $32 more a year on their water bills.

All three approaches are problematic. With the state once again facing a big budget deficit in the new fiscal year beginning July 1, taking $200 million out of general revenues would likely necessitate deep cuts in other programs. Given the Christie administration’s record, some conservationist’s fear that the ax would fall most heavily on the state Department of Environmental Protection.

While voters have always approved Green Acres bond issues, New Jersey lawmakers and the Christie administration are increasingly reluctant to contribute to the growing debt load. Borrowing the money to preserve open space also is much more costly than funding it on a pay-as-you-go basis.

The final option, imposing a small surcharge on water consumption, has surfaced in some form during legislative sessions over the past couple of decades. It never gains much traction for a variety of reasons. For one, businesses and manufacturers could spend as much as $50,000 a year for facilities that use large amounts of water. What’s more, the proposal raises only $150 million a year, $50 million shy of what green groups say the state needs to preserve open space and farmland.

How this will play out remains uncertain, but some factors may force the issue. Perhaps most importantly, money from the last bond issue approved by voters is virtually exhausted, and it is unlikely that either the Legislature or the governor will let the highly popular program lapse. And for Christie, the failure to enact a stable source of funding for open space would amount to a failure to deliver on a campaign promise just as he is about to embark on his reelection campaign.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, preserving open space and creating parks are well worth the investment.

Every year, according to the association, Americans shell out $640 billion on gear, vehicles, trips, and travel-related expenses related to outdoor recreation.

“These figures make clear that preserving our parks and open space directly benefits our economy here in the Garden State,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of New Jersey Keep It Green. “The governor and Legislature must act this year to put a long-term source of sustainable preservation funding in place to protect our open space and the economy.’’

The coalition argued that diverting sales tax revenue is not as much of a hit on the general budget as some critics suggest. The $200 million allocation, it argued, represents less than 1 percent of total state revenues and less than one-fifth of one cent of the seven-cent state sales tax.