Funding for Open-Space Preservation Troubles New Legislative Session

Amid continuing controversy, Senate panel votes out measure to use portion of state sales tax to preserve NJ's open spaces

Credit: Amanda Brown
Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Green Coalition, which supports a constitutional amendment that would dedicate up to $200 million a year in state sales tax to open-space preservation.
The issue of how to finance the preservation of New Jersey’s open space, farmland, and historic structures flared up again yesterday in the Legislature, but neither side in a long-running impasse gave any hint of compromising.

With scant debate, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee voted out a measure (SCR-2) that would constitutionally dedicate up to $200 million a year out of the state’s sales tax revenues. The measure is identical to one passed previously by the panel and Senate in the last legislative session, which died in the Assembly.

But with no signs of the issue being resolved, the open-space program is virtually out of funding. That would leave few ways to help towns, counties, and the state to protect the more than 650,000 acres of high-value undeveloped land from being paved over, as well as 400,000 acres of farmland agricultural officials say need to be preserved.

Such an outcome might not only highlight the dysfunction of the Legislature on reaching a compromise, but also that of the environmental community in failing to come to consensus on the issue, a concern raised by Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee. “It didn’t show a great deal of leadership,’’ he said.

Others blamed Gov. Chris Christie for not delivering on a campaign promise in his first run for the state’s top elected office to come up with a stable source of funding for open-space preservation.

In a public hearing on the proposal after the committee vote, the divisiveness of the issue was highlighted by sharp exchanges between opponents of the measure and lawmakers whether a change in the leadership in the Assembly would improve prospects of a measure that has gained little traction there.

“It’s not going anywhere in the Assembly, no matter what these people think,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, after the committee hearing. He and other environmental groups have argued that the measure would leave other environmental programs vulnerable to cuts if money is diverted out of the general fund for open-space programs.

Smith disagreed. “I’m hopeful the new speaker will provide a new direction,’’ he said. He argued only a constitutional amendment would prevent future administrations of siphoning off money from open space funds to plug holes in future budgets.

“No offense to any governor, but they’re all crooks,’’ Smith said. “They steal money for whatever exigency exists to put money from one pot into another pot.’’

In the past, the Sierra Club and the New Jersey Environmental Federation backed a new bond issue — voters have approved 13 consecutive Green Acres ballot questions — as a stopgap measure to fund open-space preservation until a compromise on a stable source of funding could be reached.

So far, that has emerged as a sort of Holy Grail of the environmental movement. Smith has sponsored a bill raising taxes on water consumption to preserve open space for more than two decades, but even he concedes neither the public nor legislative leadership would ever support it.

With the state carrying a debt load of $50 billion, Smith argued voters may not be inclined to support a new bond issue to protect open space. “The cost to pay back those bonds is increasing,’’ he said.

To those who argue that the state cannot afford to divert up to $6 billion over 30 years, Smith and others argued it would amount only to six-tenths of 1 percent of the overall state budget.

“Does it make sense? ‘’ asked Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Green Coalition, which includes 185 recreational and conservation groups pushing for the constitutional amendment. “Absolutely.’’

But Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex), who voted against the measure disagreed.

“We’re going to commit money that doesn’t exist,’’ he said, citing huge pension and other obligations already facing state lawmakers. “You are just creating a $200 million hole in the state budget.’’

His views contrasted with fellow Republican, Sen. Chris (Kip) Bateman of Somerset County, a cosponsor of the measure, who issued a rare rebuke to the governor. “I think the governor has done a great job in many areas, but he said he’d come up with a stable source of funding and it’s been four years,’’ he said.