Competing Open-Space Funding Schemes Could Leave Program Broke

Lawmakers, advocates line up behind stable source of funding or bond issue on the ballot -- with no compromise in sight

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer
From perhaps one perspective, yesterday counted as a good day for the environmental movement.

In both the Senate and the Assembly, legislative committees advanced measures that would create new funds to protect open space and farmland, as well as preserve the state’s historic structures.

The only problem is that the approaches taken by the respective panels are at odds, with neither side seemingly expressing any interest in compromising. If no one budges, it could leave the state’s highly popular open-space preservation program with little or no money to dish out in the coming year.

In the Assembly Budget Committee, a measure to put a $200 million open-space bond issue on the ballot in November easily cleared the panel, even as its supporters conceded it was a stop-gap measure and would only provide funding for one year.

In the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the panel, revived a slightly modified resolution (SCR-165) that would ask voters in the fall to approve a constitutional amendment dedicating up to $200 million a year, or 2.4 percent of state sales tax revenue, whichever is less, over the next 30 years. The measure would not take effect until 2015.

Smith sponsored a similar resolution earlier this year that passed the Senate, but was never posted for a vote in the Assembly, whose members feared dedicating such a large portion of revenue at a time when state is facing recurring fiscal crises. They also were worried that it would tie the hands of future legislators in deciding where state spending should go.

The impasse seems no closer to being resolved, as a fractured environmental community lined up behind both proposals, with each side denouncing the other. Now, even Democrats, who control both houses, cannot agree on a funding approach.

The issue appears even more intractable because the Christie administration, which had vowed to develop a stable source of funding for open-space preservation –described by Smith as the “holy grail’’ of the environmental movement — has yet to do so and has remained silent on any of the proposals pending in the Legislature.

In the meantime, two of the state’s biggest environmental organizations — the New Jersey Sierra Club and New Jersey Environmental Federation, traditionally strong supporters of a stable source of funding — flip-flopped and now are backing the $200 million bond issue (A-4541) sponsored by Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex).

Echoing the concerns of some lawmakers, the two groups worry that siphoning off money from the sales tax could jeopardize funding for other critical environmental programs. Smith disputed that argument, saying the governor can slash funding for whatever program he wants — whether or not his constitutional amendment passes.

In supporting the bond proposal, Kate Millsaps of the Sierra Club said the measure would give legislators time to work out a plan for stable source of funding in the next legislative term, beginning in January. The bill is apparently on the fast track in the Assembly, being sent directly to the Assembly Budget Committee, bypassing the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, which Spencer chairs.

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), the chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, acknowledged that the bond issue was a “temporary band-aid’’ to fund open space while legislators explored ways to develop a stable source of funding for the program, a commitment others on the panel pledged to act on.

Hearing that, one lobbyist not involved in the issue remarked, “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, we’d already have a stable source of funding.’’

Kelly Moiij, coordinator for NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of 180 conservation, park, and other organizations, pushing Smith’s proposal, told the committee the bond issue does not solve the need.

“It’s a stopgap measure, which puts us in the same place in another year,’’ she said.

Others feared the bond issue, although 13 previous proposals to borrow money to preserve open space have been approved by voters since 1961, may not win support if put on the ballot this fall.

“We can only go to the ballot so many times before there is voter fatigue,’’ said Ed Potosnak, director for the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Smith, too, seemed frustrated over efforts to find a stable source of funding, a cause he has advocated for the past 20 years when he first introduced a bill to fund the effort by a water tax, a proposal that has garnered editorial support in the state’s largest newspaper. Even he concedes it never will happen. The leaders of each house will never post the measure, and if it ever got on the ballot, it would fail miserably, Smith predicted.