Senate Committee Favors Funding Open-Space Preservation With Sales Tax Revenue

Even if bill clears committee, unlikely to find needed bipartisan backing to be passed by full Legislature

The Legislature may to be moving forward on constitutionally dedicating $200 million each year from the state’s sales tax to preserve open space and farmland.

In legislation up for a vote in the Senate Environment and Energy Committee on Monday, the chairman of the committee says the approach is the one most favored by senators. Many environmental groups also support the initiative.

The proposal is one of three options pending in the Legislature for funding open-space preservation, a highly popular program that is quickly running out of money for new projects.

The second proposal would establish a new bond issue to borrow money for the Green Acres program, an idea frowned upon by many because it would increase the state’s debt load. The third is a tax on water consumption, a measure that has virtually no chance of winning passage in the Legislature, or a signature from Gov. Chris Christie — if it ever did.

For years, conservation groups have lobbied, mostly unsuccessfully, to fund open-space preservation efforts by setting up a stable source of money, instead of more-costly bond issues. Christie vowed to do so, but has failed to follow through, although an initiative is on his desk, according to administration officials, who have refused to talk about details.

Earlier this month, Kevin Roberts, a Christie campaign spokesman, said the issue is a policy decision under review by the governor’s office. “The governor supports land preservation,’’ he said.

Nevertheless, the issue could be contentious over the next two months. In order to get the bill on the ballot this November, it would need to clear the Legislature by a two-thirds majority, meaning it would require bipartisan support. With the Christie administration largely silent on the issue, it is uncertain that backing will be forthcoming.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the bill (S-2529) and the chairman of the panel, said of the three alternatives before lawmakers, “this is the most popular.’’ He noted that the fund to preserve open space is running out of money.

“It’s the holy grail of the environmental movement — a stable source of funding for open-space preservation. We have to do it,’’ Smith said. It is unlikely Smith would post the bill in his committee next week without being assured of its passage. Its fate after that, however, is uncertain.

The state expects to spend $100 million in the coming fiscal year to fund projects to preserve open space and farmland, at least $50 million shy of what the state traditionally spends annually on the program.

In the fiscal year following that, the funding will drop off even more, with only $40 million available to fund preservation efforts, parkland projects, and buyouts of flood-prone properties, according to state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, speaking to the Assembly Budget Committee earlier this month.

The Keep It Green Coalition, an alliance of various conservation groups, has long lobbied for the state to allocate $200 million annually for open-space preservation, strongly backing the sales tax scheme.

“What we have found is overwhelming support for the sales tax initiative,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the Keep It Green Coalition. “It’s very encouraging.’’

While some might suggest that diverting money from sales tax revenue is hardly a practical maneuver when the state is facing huge budget deficits, Gilbert noted that under Smith’s bill, the money from sales tax revenues would not be diverted until the state’s fiscal year 2015, affording time for the state to recover from falling tax revenue.

In the past two years, Gilbert said, state sales tax revenue has increased by an average of $206 million annually. Other budget experts, however, say sales tax revenues have been an underperforming source of money from the state, primarily because consumer patterns have shifted away from purchase of goods to services provided.