In a race against time, a legislative committee yesterday tried to revive a proposal to spend $200 million a year to preserve open space, farmland, and historic treasures — a prospect even its many proponents describe as dubious at best.
The Senate Environment and Energy Committee held a public hearing in the Statehouse Annex on a slimmed-down version of an earlier measure that would ask voters this fall to approve a constitutional amendment to dedicate a portion of the state’s sales tax to the preservation effort.
But in order to get on the ballot this November, the bill needs to be approved by both houses of the Legislature by August 1, a very tall order considering lawmakers are usually loath to be called back into session during the summer months.
Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the measure (SCR160) and chairman of the panel, conceded as much. The Legislature, when in session, generally meets on Monday and Thursdays, but no sessions have yet been scheduled by the leadership of either house.
“We have a two-week window,’’ he said, adding that if advocates feel strongly about open space they should contact their district lawmakers and legislative leadership to call sessions before it is too late to get the issue on the ballot.
Sen. Christopher (Kip) Bateman (R-Somerset), a cosponsor, was similarly pessimistic. “Knowing Trenton, it is going to be difficult to make it happen,’’ he said, although he noted the diversion of sales tax money would not begin until the 2015 fiscal year.
Previously, the Senate easily passed a different measure (SCR-138) with only two dissenting votes, but the Assembly balked at following suit when a fiscal estimate prepared by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services said the cost of diverting sales tax annually would be much higher than the $200 million that proponents originally projected.
The OLS estimate suggested that the diversion of sales tax in the original proposal would have drained $866 million in just its first three years, beginning in fiscal year 2015, and up to $17 billion over the 30-year life of the program.
To mollify critics, the latest version capped the amount that would be siphoned from the state’s sales tax revenue to a maximum of $200 million a year, an amount the state has typically spent on open-space preservation since 1998, according to Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green Coalition, which represents more than 180 conservation and recreation groups supporting the measure.
The resulting drain on the state budget would be $6 billion, instead of $17 billion.
“This is an investment that the state can make, and cannot afford not make,’’ Gilbert told the committee.
The issue is at the forefront because New Jersey has run out of funds to preserve open space, an effort in the past financed by 13 bond issues approved by voters and a previous diversion of tax revenue. It is a cause widely supported by the public.
When Gov. Christie ran for office in 2009, he promised to deliver a stable source of funding for open-space preservation, a pledge he has failed to fulfill. The administration has not commented on the proposals moving through the Legislature.
The debate over the issue, however, underscores how even a universally popular program has split environmental organizations, which once were united behind initiatives to fund open space.
For instance, Gilbert’s support for the sales tax proposal was echoed by many organizations in the coalition, as well as by others.
John Miller, representing the New Jersey Association of Floodplain Management, noted that a great deal of money is needed to match funds from the Federal Emergency Management Association to buy out flood-prone properties. In the past eight years, he noted, there have been 11 presidential declarations of disaster.
Citing the floods that have devastated wide sections of the state, Miller said the demand for buyouts far exceeds the money available. The state needs to create an additional source of funding to help finance buyouts, he argued,
But some environmental groups are leery about the proposal because they worry it will lead to cuts in other programs intended to clean up air, water, and land. They have been joined by others who said the proposal is ill-timed and ill-considered.
Gordon MacInnes, a former state senator who is now president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, questioned whether the state can afford to divert even $200 million from the general fund when budgets are constantly strained to provide services to the public.
He noted that the $200 million set aside for open-space preservation is twice the amount of additional money funneled to New Jersey’s school districts in the current fiscal year. What happens if the state faces new economic recessions, he asked.
“We are going to have recessions in the next 30 years,’’ MacInnes said. “It’s a pretty good bet; we’ve had seven in the last 30 years.’’
Even beyond the fiscal implications of diverting sales tax revenue, others argued the state has to address a variety of issues dealing with land conservation and land use.
“Open-space preservation is just one part of land-use planning and conservation,’’ said Bill Wolfe, the head of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in New Jersey. He added that open-space funding is just one part of the overall tool kit to protect natural resources, citing land-use regulations and other planning directives.
Not only are those tools being neglected, Wolfe said, but also they are being rolled back by the Christie administration with scarcely a word from legislators or those in the NJ Keep It Green Coalition.
“The regulatory stick has withered on the vine,’’ he told the committee. “It’s dead.’’ Without tough regulatory rules governing land use, Wolfe said, it would be throwing away taxpayer funds to purchase properties that might again be in harm’s way from future extreme storms.