Committee Votes Out Bill to Fund Open Spaces Using Sales Tax

Single GOP lawmaker backs proposal, which could be DOA in the Legislature

With backing from a Republican lawmaker, a Senate committee yesterday advanced legislation to dedicate at least $200 million out of the general fund each year to support open-space and farmland preservation, as well as to enhance efforts to protect cultural and historic resources.

In a pair of 4-1 votes, the legislation approved by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee aims to deal with the virtual exhaustion of a 2009 bond issue that financed those efforts. If not addressed, the shortfall could bring an end to New Jersey’s more than 50-year program to protect the state’s dwindling open spaces, according to advocates.

The legislation includes putting a measure (SCR-138) on the November ballot to constitutionally dedicate one-fifth of one cent of the state’s 7 percent sales tax to open space preservation annually for 30 years. The other bill (S-2529) would allow the money to be spent on the effort.

Whether the proposals make it through the rest of the legislative process, however, and get signed by Gov. Chris Christie remains highly questionable. The ballot question needs a two-thirds majority in both houses to have voters make a decision this November.

The action came on a day when lawmakers were told there could be a $444 million shortfall in the state’s current fiscal year budget, which ends June 30, according to the chief budget analyst for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. David Rosen also projected next year’s revenues would fall $492 million below what Christie estimated when he proposed his fiscal year 2014 budget.

The issue of establishing a stable source of funding to preserve open spaces has long been a priority of virtually every environmental organization in New Jersey, a goal Christie embraced in his successful gubernatorial campaign but has yet to achieve. Other governors also have endorsed the cause, but never followed through, relying instead on expensive bond issues, which have been approved by voters on 13 different occasions since 1961.

The state’s current fiscal problems brought Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) and Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, into a rare moment of agreement — opposing the bills based on their fiscal impact on other state programs.

Noting that sales tax revenue has dipped by $800 million in recent years, Beck questioned what happens if there is another economic downturn.

Given the shortfall in the budget and the cuts (in environmental and clean energy programs) already in place, an open-space sales tax dedication could undercut other programs not only this year, but for the next 20 years going forward, Tittel argued. Diversion of funds from clean energy and environmental programs could reach nearly a half billion dollars this year alone, he said, in the governor’s proposed budget.

But proponents of the bill, a broad coalition of environmental, conservation, and recreational groups, argued the state cannot afford not to enact a stable source of funding.

“With all of the 2009 bond funds for preservation programs allocated, New Jersey is at risk of having decades of successful preservation efforts grind to a halt, jeopardizing critical lands that protect our water supply, guard against storm damage, and generate billions of dollars in economic benefits,’’ said Kelly Mooij, the coordinator of the Keep It Green coalition in a written statement. Her group is advocating for the initiatives.

In a previous legislative hearing this spring, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said the agency would have about $100 million available to fund open space efforts — at least $50 million less than what is normally spent –in the next fiscal year, and another $40 million in the succeeding year.

Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the agency, said the money is being cobbled together from three different sources: money that has yet to be expended from the bond issue; interest payments on past projects given loans; and projects awarded money that never moved forward.

“We are going through all the buckets that are left,’’ Ragonese said. He denied rumors that some of the money is coming from a natural resources damage fund, which polluters pay for damaging critical habitat areas. He said the governor is committed to finding a way to preserve open spaces, but declined to offer a timetable or details on the proposal.

Sen. Christopher “Kip’’ Bateman (R-Somerset), a co-sponsor of SCR-138, agreed, saying the governor is committed to preserving open space, without providing any more details. In voting for the measure, however, Bateman conceded his support might not reflect the Republican mainstream.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the panel and a cosponsor, argued that the legislation not only would provide huge economic benefits to the state, but also allow it to deal with problems from superstorms, like Hurricane Sandy. He contended that the $300 million allocated to New Jersey to buy out flood-prone properties would only scratch the surface of the properties that need to be relocated.