Eleventh-Hour Push to Get Open-Space Initiative on November Ballot

State Senate votes today in rare midsummer morning session, but Assembly hasn't announced if it will meet by Thursday deadline

open space meadow
In what may be a long shot at best, the state Senate is making another try today at getting a $200 million open-space preservation question on this November’s ballot.

A previous measure to appropriate at least $200 million annually to conserve diminishing open spaces in New Jersey, as well as to preserve and protect farmland and historic treasures, easily cleared the Senate in late June but was never taken up by the Assembly.

If the current measure (SCR-160) wins approval from lawmakers in a rare morning session scheduled in midsummer, it still needs to be passed by the Assembly by Thursday. The lower house has yet to say that it will meet by then. It is the only bill on the Senate’s agenda today.

“The Assembly will monitor Monday’s Senate vote and plan accordingly,’’ said Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, who control the body, when asked about its plans on Friday.

Still, the decision by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to post the bill was welcomed by New Jersey Keep It Green, a coalition of 180 park and conservation groups in the forefront of lobbying for the measure.

“NJ Keep It Green is deeply appreciative of the bipartisan leaders who are championing these bills and who understand that without a sustainable approach to funding, preservation projects across the state will grind to a halt, threatening to undo decades of progress that have made New Jersey a national leader in open-space preservation,’’ said Kelly Mooij, coordinator of the organization.

The current version of the measure caps at $200 million annually the amount that could be diverted from the state’s sales tax revenue for preservation efforts. The Assembly balked at the long-term cost over 30 years of the previous proposal — $17 billion, according to a fiscal estimate prepared by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services.

That bill’s backers argue that the proposed legislation is fiscally responsible because it does not increase taxes or state debt. The dedicated $200 million represents less than 1 percent of the state budget; the money is expected to come from the projected growth of more than $400 million annually in sales taxes.

Besides funding open-space efforts, the initiative also would provide needed funds to buy out flood-prone properties along rivers and coastal areas, advocates said.

The current proposal would end up costing $6 billion over three decades, a cost some say is still too expensive for a state with recurring budget crises.

“Increasing needs for education, Medicaid, and the growing pension commitments leave no room for the loss of $200 million — or $6 billion over 30 years,’’ wrote Richard F. Keevey, a former state budget director and comptroller for two New Jersey governors in an op-ed piece yesterday in the Sunday Star-Ledger.

The bill also drew criticism from two environmental groups — the New Jersey Sierra Club and the New Jersey Federation — both of which feared diversion of sales tax revenue could lead to deeper cuts in other environmental programs. Instead, they backed a bill that would impose a small tax on water use for residential customers but would have a much bigger impact on businesses relying on huge volumes of water to conduct their operations.

Gov. Chris Christie, who vowed to enact a stable source of funding during his initial gubernatorial campaign, has failed to deliver on that promise. His administration has taken no public position on the bill. If it passes by a three-fifths majority in both houses, it will automatically appear on the fall ballot.

The push to find a new source of funding for open-space preservation is because earlier funding for the effort — mostly from bond issues approved by voters 13 consecutive times — is virtually exhausted, according to proponents.