Bill Would Put $200M Open-Space Bond Issue on November 2014 Ballot

Some environmentalists dismiss proposed legislation, argue stable source of funding must be established

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer
The lame-duck legislative session is likely to try to finance preservation of open space, farmland, and historic treasures, but the effort may not win plaudits from some parts of the environmental community.

In a bill to be introduced by Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), the measure would ask voters to approve a $200 million bond issue next November. Associated Press first reported the proposal, talked about at the annual convention of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities in Atlantic City last week.

If approved, the bill would provide a stopgap measure to fund New Jersey’s open-space preservation program, which is virtually out of money. But it also means open-space advocates would once again be unsuccessful in their efforts to convince the Legislature and governor’s office to enact a stable source of funding for the issue.

“We think it’s absolutely the wrong approach,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep it Green Coalition, who described the bond issue as a band aid. “Two hundred million is a one-year approach. It kicks the can one year down the road.’’

The coalition, comprising 185 park and conservation organizations, has been lobbying to enact a stable source of funding to protect open spaces, most recently pushing a bill (SCR-160) to dedicate $200 million a year out of the state’s sales tax revenues to protect open space, farmland, and historic structures.

“Another year bond issue doesn’t really solve anything,’’ Gilbert said. The state typically spends about $200 million a year protecting open space and historic buildings. “We continue to maintain the sales tax dedication is the best approach.’’

The Senate, controlled by Democrats, approved the sales-tax dedication bill, but it has failed to gain traction in the state Assembly, largely because some environmental and labor groups fear it would divert money out of the state budget that otherwise would fund issues important to them.

The issue is a recurring one in Trenton. In his inaugural election run, Gov. Chris Christie pledged to enact a stable source of funding for open space, a promise he has yet to fulfill. Numerous other legislative efforts to find a stable source of open-space preservation funding also have faltered.

In the past, policymakers have relied on bond issues — which are more expensive because they incur borrowing costs and add to the state’s debt — to fund ope- space preservation. Thirteen out of 13 such bond issues that have been placed on the state ballot since 1961 have been approved.

Besides the governor, state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin has repeatedly told legislative committees the administration will propose a stable source of funding to preserve open space, but has failed to do so.

Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, said no action is planned on the Senate resolution, but the Assembly hopes to move forward with action on the bond referendum in coming weeks.

With the state budget in a seemingly perpetual state of crisis, many lawmakers worry about dedicating any tax revenue to a specific issue, which would make the task of balancing the budget more difficult for future legislators.

To some environmentalists, however, the bond issue is the way to go.

“I think it’s a good idea,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “We need funding; we need a stopgap measure. It’s not ideal but it is better than any other alternative.’’

Jeff Tittel, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed, saying there is not a lot of support in the Assembly for dedicating sales tax revenue to open-space preservation. “It makes sense. Every time there has been a bond issue, it has always passed,’’ he said.