Bipartisan Senate Support for Open-Space Bill Collapses at Last Minute

Democrats contend that Christie called GOP lawmakers over weekend to lobby against measure

A month apparently makes a big difference in Trenton, exposing rifts between both parties on an issue generally regarded as a slam-dunk for virtually all lawmakers.

In late June, the Senate easily passed with bipartisan support a measure (SCR-138) to ask voters to dedicate at least $200 million a year out of the state’s sales tax revenues to finance preservation of open space, farmland, historic treasures and buyouts of flood-prone properties.

Yesterday, a slimmed-down version of the same proposal faltered in the same body that approved it in a 36-2 vote on June 20. It garnered just 22 votes this time, not enough to get it on the ballot this fall. Democrats blamed Gov. Chris Christie, who they claimed lobbied Republican lawmakers over the weekend to vote against the measure.

Christie had vowed to enact a stable source of funding in his initial gubernatorial campaign, but has yet to deliver on that pledge.

But even Democrats were sniping at one another for failing to pass the measure.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said the Assembly had given clear indications that they did not have enough votes to get the proposal on this fall’s ballot, as proponents had argued. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) quickly repudiated that statement in a press release.

“Any implication that the Assembly is to blame for the Senate’s failure to get 24 votes today [which is necessary to get the measure on the fall ballot] is ludicrous,’’ Oliver said in a press release.

A bipartisan divide, not to mention a dispute between Democrats, on open-space issues is highly unusual in Trenton, where both parties have traditionally backed the cause. It has been repeatedly endorsed by voters, who have approved 13 out of 13 bond issues to spend money to do so.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) said because of fear and intimidation from the front office, most of his Republican colleagues, all but two of whom supported the new bill (SCR-160), failed to support the measure or abstained from voting. “This is a real failure of policy,’’ Smith said.

If true, it worked. The Governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Only two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Chris (Kip) Bateman (R-Somerset) and Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), both cosponsors of the bill, voted for the measure in a rare morning session held in late July.

It was an unusual session for the Senate, which opened the board about 20 minutes after 9 a.m. and kept it open until early evening to allow late-arriving senators, some of them on vacation out of state, to cast a vote on the legislation, the only one on the agenda.

There was no debate on the bill, with senators milling around the chamber floor before casting votes or in some cases just showing up for the quorum call and simply leaving without voting.

With the bill lacking the requisite votes to get on the ballot, legislators urged proponents to call lawmakers’ legislative offices to get members to change their vote as the day went on.

The measure was strongly backed by a wide array of conservation and park organizations, who say it is desperately needed to address the virtual exhaustion of open-space funding in New Jersey in the next few years. Former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean also backed the measure in an op-ed in the Star-Ledger yesterday.

“If we haven’t money to preserve open space because these guys won’t do their jobs, that’s appalling,’’ the former governor said. His son, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union), who voted for the proposal in June, was among several Republicans who switched their votes yesterday from yes to no.

Others include Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean), Sen. Joseph Pennachio (R-Morris), Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), Sen. James Hozapfel (R-Ocean), Sen. Chris Connors (R-Ocean), and Sen. Steven Oroho (R-Sussex).

To appear on this November’s ballot, the measure needed at least 24 votes in the Senate, and another 48 in the Assembly, which would have to convene by Thursday to meet the deadline. Otherwise, both houses would have to approve the bill by a simple majority to get it on the 2014 ballot. In either case, funds would not be diverted from sales tax revenue until 2015.

Critics have argued the state, perpetually engulfed in budget crises, cannot afford to set aside $200 million over the next 30 years at a cost of $6 billion to preserve open space — no matter how laudable the cause, given other budget priorities, among them funding healthcare and pension benefits.

Three Jersey Shore lawmakers yesterday questioned in a press release whether the dedication of the sales tax revenues would jeopardize efforts to rebuild along the coast. All three, Singer, Hozapfel, and Connors, supported the initial sales tax dedication.

In pushing the bill, Senate President Sweeney and others noted the new measure is even more conservative than the first bill adopted by the Senate, which would cap the sales-tax diversion at $200 million a year. The amendment would limit the 30-year expenditures from the program to $6 billion, instead of the $17 billion estimate projected under the original measure by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services.

That estimate led the Assembly to balk at approving the bill.

With New Jersey facing huge costs to rebuild the state and purchase flood-prone properties from extreme events such as Hurricane Sandy, proponents of the bill argued in its favor.

New Jersey expects to receive up to $300 million from the federal government to buy out flood-prone properties. It is far short of what the state needs to expend on the effort, according to proponents of the measure.

“It’s a start, but it is only a drop in the bucket,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of New Jersey Keep It Green, a coalition of 180 park and conservation groups working to approve the proposal. He said that the $300 million allocated by the federal government would probably buy-out 1,000 homes, far short of what is necessary.