Open-Space Funding Initiative Could Be DOA

Assembly lawmakers unwilling to post sales tax scheme for vote

A big push to enact a stable source of funding for open space preservation by siphoning more than $200 million a year from the state sales tax suffered a likely fatal setback yesterday when the Assembly balked at posting the measure for a vote.

The decision to hold off action on the measure — a resolution (SCR-138) constitutionally dedicating sales tax revenue to preserve open spaces, farmland, and historic treasures — makes it unlikely lawmakers will act on it quickly enough to get it on the November ballot.

While advocates say they still hope to fashion a compromise that would allow the measure to move forward, time is rapidly running out. The Legislature is expected to break for its summer recess after a session is held tomorrow, and any compromise needs to be approved by both houses in August to make it on the ballot.

It is rare for lawmakers to schedule sessions in August, especially in a year when a primary election for the U.S. Senate will be held in midmonth and another unprecedented election in October to fill the seat of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) In November, there is a gubernatorial election as well as a vote to choose all 120 legislators.

The measure, overwhelmingly approved by the Senate last Thursday, was backed by an impressive coalition of conservation organizations, who viewed it as the best solution to funding New Jersey’s open space preservation efforts at a time when all funding for the cause is virtually exhausted.

In the end, however, the measure faltered because of concerns raised about its potential cost and impact on other unrelated areas of the state budget. In a fiscal estimate prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, it projected the measure would cost far more than the $200 million annually projected by its proponents.

In the first three years of the program, it would drain $886 million out of the general fund and about $17 billion over the 30-year life of the program, according to the OLS estimate.

Those projections spurred lobbying against the measure by a number of influential organizations in Trenton, including the New Jersey Education Association, the Communication Workers of America (the state’s largest employee union), and prominent environmental groups. All feared the diversions would lead to new cuts in state environmental and other programs.

It also led to defections by some Democrats who had a lengthy debate about the measure in a caucus before their session late yesterday afternoon, ultimately deciding not to post the bill. Several Republican cosponsors also withdrew their support, according to Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the measure in the lower house.

Both lawmakers and advocates of the bill privately said that they had heard Gov. Chris Christie advised Republican colleagues to hold off support for the measure, which would not have gotten on the ballot without GOP backing.

Michael Drewniak, the governor’s spokesman, would not directly answer whether Christie had done so, saying lawmakers were more concerned about the fiscal consequences of hamstringing future governors by the measure.

Christie campaigned on a promise to enact a stable source of funding to preserve open space, but has yet to deliver any program that would fulfill that pledge.

McKeon and Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) both vowed to press forward with efforts to fine tune the bill. The Assemblyman said they were looking at plans to cap how much money would go to open space preservation and to allow some flexibility when other budget priorities arise.

As originally drafted, the measure proposed a constitutional amendment to dedicate one-fifth of one cent of state’s 7 percent sales tax for open space, farmland, and historic preservation for 30 years.

If it got on the ballot, both proponents and critics agreed voters would approve the measure. Since 1961, New Jersey voters have passed 13 out of 13 ballot measures supporting open space preservation.

The NJ Keep It Green coalition, comprising more than 180 conservation organizations, expressed disappointment at the failure of the Assembly to act, but vowed to press forward.

“It’s not coming up today, but it’s not dead,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the coalition.

Others were skeptical. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, noted that since 1996 the state has spent more than $3 billion to acquire more than 400,000 acres of open space. “It makes it pretty hard to justify spending $17 billion over the next three decades,’’ he said.

Gilbert argued otherwise.

“When you think of one number over a 30-year period, it seems like a large number,’’ he said, but added that the state needs to factor in inflation and rising land values. “The needs are enormous.’’