Advocates Keep Pushing to Get Open Space Initiative on November Ballot

New scheme would dedicate $200M a year to help protect New Jersey's remaining undeveloped land

The Legislature has yet to schedule any new sessions for this summer, but proponents of a measure to provide a stable source of funding to preserve open space and farmland keep pressing their case.

In both houses last week, sponsors of legislation to dedicate a portion of the state’s sales tax to protect open space introduced revised measures to address criticism that had derailed the initiative earlier in session.

The open space initiative is backed by virtually all of the state’s conservation organizations, most of which view it as their best hope to finance protection of farmland, historic treasures, and the state’s dwindling undeveloped land.

The revised measures, introduced by Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex) on Thursday, would dedicate $200 million year over 30 years to preserve open space, if approved by voters in a constitutional amendment this November.

Unlike the previous versions of their bills, the latest measure (SCR-160) eliminates a provision that would have asked voters to approve a constitutional amendment to dedicate one-fifth of one cent of the state’s 7 percent sales tax for open space preservation over the next three decades, beginning in the state’s fiscal year 2015.

The original bill cleared the Senate easily in June, but encountered opposition in the Assembly after a fiscal note prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services suggested the financing mechanism would generate far more than proponents said if state sales tax revenue kept rising based on historical trends.

In fiscal year 2015, the loss in sales tax revenue to the general fund would be $275 million; in fiscal year 2016, $288 million; and $301 million in the following budget year. All told, the general fund would lose $17 billion over the course of the program as the bill was originally drafted, according to the OLS fiscal estimate.

Both Smith and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a cosponsor of the bill, told NJ Spotlight last week they still hoped to get the bill on the November ballot by addressing concerns of some lawmakers. The bill was introduced in both houses last week and forwarded to the Assembly and Senate without being referred to committees, as is generally the norm.

But time is running out. To get it on the ballot, the bill needs to be approved by lawmakers in August, a time when the Legislature traditionally does not schedule sessions, particularly in election years.

With the state facing recurring budget crises, some are questioning whether New Jersey could afford to divert $200 million a year out of the general fund to provide a stable source of funding for open space preservation.

The concerns led to defections on, both sides of the aisle. Some Democratic lawmakers also said Gov. Chris Christie advised the GOP caucus to withhold support, which would have doomed efforts to get it on the ballot.

Others, however, argued that the state can ill afford not to finance open space preservation and related projects. Among other things, the measure would also help fund the buyout of flood-prone properties along waterways in New Jersey and along the coast, much of which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

But some environmental organizations opposed the dedication of sales tax revenue for that purpose, saying it could lead to deeper cuts in programs designed to protect New Jersey’s air, water, and natural resources. That concern also led to opposition to the measure from the New Jersey Education Association and the Communications Workers of America, the state’s largest public employee union.

New Jersey voters have traditionally approved ballot questions dealing with funding for open space preservation, assenting to 13 out of 13 measures they were asked to vote on.