Senate, Assembly Democrats Disagree Over Open-Space Preservation

Parting of ways could ultimately put state's remaining undeveloped land in jeopardy

open space meadow
Once again, lawmakers from the same party serving in different branches of the Legislature are on different pages when it comes to how the state should preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures.

With New Jersey virtually out of money to finance open space preservation, the Assembly and Senate appear to be pursuing different solutions to the problem in the lame duck session, which ends in early January. Neither is either getting much, if any, guidance from the governor’s office.

The potential impasse could prevent the Legislature from reaching consensus on the issue, which has long been contentious. Should it be done by enacting a long-term stable source of funding from a new or existing revenue source or by approving a stopgap bond issue that borrows the money to finance the program for a couple of years?

If no agreement is reached, it could further dry up money for towns, nonprofit organizations, and counties that rely on a state fund to set aside the dwindling amount of open space in New Jersey, a state some expect to be the first in the nation to reach buildout by the middle of this century. By some accounts, the state has approximately 1 million acres — or about 20 percent of its land mass — left undeveloped.

On Thursday, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, introduced a resolution (SCR-165) that would modify slightly a proposal to dedicate up to $200 million of sales tax revenue a year to the effort. A similar measure passed the Senate earlier this year, but never was posted for a vote in the Assembly.

The Assembly is expected to take a different approach when it reconvenes this Thursday. Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, is set to introduce a $200 million bond issue to ask voters to approve the expenditures on next November’s ballot.

It is a tried-and-true approach — given past results. Voters have never defeated an open-space bond issue, approving 13 such ballot questions since 1961. The downside is that borrowing is much more expensive than paying from a stable funding source, and also increases the state’s long-term debt. By most estimates, borrowing the money to preserve open space instead of paying as you go increases costs by up to four times.

But many lawmakers balked at the approach suggested by the Senate, saying the state’s precarious fiscal circumstances should preclude it from siphoning off money from other programs deserving of funding. Some environmental groups echo that concern, fearing it would lead to new cuts in programs to protect the state’s air and water.

A major factor in the concern raised by legislators was a projection by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Service that the dedication of sales tax revenue over 30 years as initially proposed could cost the state $17 billion.

Before Smith introduced his latest bill, Tom Hester, a spokesman for Assembly Democrats, who control the lower chamber, said no action is planned on the original Senate resolution.

To address that concern, Smith’s latest bill would ask voters to support an annual tax dedication of either 2.4 percent or $200 million — whichever generates less in a given year — for preservation programs.

Based upon final sales tax collections for fiscal year 2013–$8.24 billion, 2.4 percent would have equaled $197.6 million, according to the NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of 185 park, conservation, and agricultural groups working to develop a stable and long-term funding source for open-space preservation.

If sales tax revenues fall below the 2013 mark, less than $197.6 million would be provided, according to the coalition. This provides a safeguard in the event of a economic downturn, the coalition said in a press release issued after the Smith bill was introduced.

“NJ Keep It Green strongly supports this legislation and is opposed to a short-term bond measure that would kick the can down the road for another years and bring no stability to critical long-term preservation efforts,’’ said Kelly Mooij, coordinator for the coalition.

Some environmentalists, disagree, including Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who noted the measure still relies on existing state revenue at a time when projected shortfalls in the state budget seem to be growing.

“At least a short-term bond issue is a compromise until we can sort all this out,’’ Tittel said.