Will Lawmakers Heed Voters’ Desire to Protect Parkland and Open Spaces?

Spending for preservation programs appeals to residents, but elected official cite tight finances

open space
Open-space preservation remains a popular initiative among state voters, but state legislators and the Christie administration aren’t so enthusiastic.

Across New Jersey, seven out of 10 ballot questions dealing with raising funds to maintain parks and open space won approval from voters on Tuesday, which conservationists say again demonstrated public support for efforts to keep drinking water clean, as well as preserving parks and green spaces.

But it remains to be seen if that public support will spur the Legislature to take up a statewide ballot initiative to dedicate up to $200 million a year in sales-tax revenues to open-space, farmland and historic -preservation programs.

Legislation to do so cleared the Senate this past summer, but the bill was never posted for a vote in the state Assembly. The Christie administration repeatedly has said it will develop a stable source of funding for open-space preservation, but it has failed to do so. It has not taken a position on the Senate bill, which still could be approved in a lame-duck session.

Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of nearly 200 parks and conservation advocacy groups pushing for open-space preservation, said the strong voter support bolsters their case. He cited the example of Newark, where 84 percent of voters supported a 1-cent levy per $100 of assessed property value. It would generate approximately $1.1 million annually to acquire green spaces and develop and maintain parks.

“We also saw measures approved in diverse regions of the state from urban areas in Bergen and Camden counties, to rural areas in Salem county,’’ Gilbert said. “This should serve as a reminder to the Governor and the Legislature that New Jersey voters continue to strongly support, land, water and historic preservation efforts.’’

Four of the local ballot questions involved extensions of existing funding obligations in Oakland and Waldwick in Bergen County, in Alloway Township in Salem County and in Shamong Township in Burlington County. Besides Newark, voters in Stratford Borough in Camden approved a new funding source to preserve open space as did voters in Frenchtown in Hunterdon County.

In discussions with Democratic leadership in the Assembly, which retained control of the house in Tuesday’s elections, Gilbert said the coalition had positive discussions with Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) and Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), who is the current chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee but is expected to be elected the next Assembly Speaker today by his caucus. Gilbert said they are committed to addressing the open-space funding issue.

The push to develop a new, stable source of funding for open-space preservation and related issues stems from the fact that traditional sources of financing for those efforts are virtually depleted.

“With the 2009 bond money to fund state preservation programs fully allocated and no new money in the pipeline, it is critical that the Assembly take action this year to protect our open spaces and preserve our family farms and historic treasures for this and future generations,’’ said Kelly Mooij, coordinator of NJ Keep It Green.

That message resonated with many lawmakers in the Senate, but not in the Assembly. They questioned whether the state could afford to siphon up to $200 million a year in sales tax revenue when New Jersey is dealing with annual budget crises.

The coalition argues the funds would come from the projected growth of more than $400 million annually in sales-tax revenues, which would still leave many millions of dollars to fund other programs above current levels.

Other environmental groups question that argument. They fear if sales tax revenues were diverted to open space preservation, it would leave other valuable environmental protection programs vulnerable to new cuts, weakening some of the strongest clean-water and clean-air laws in the nation.