In a rare show of harmony, the state’s environmental community yesterday largely rallied around a new proposal to finance open-space preservation efforts in New Jersey, although with some reservations.
With even its sponsors acknowledging the measure will need revisions, the bill (SCR-84) aims to ask voters this November to approve a constitutional amendment to dedicate at least $150 million out of corporate business taxes to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures for over 30 years.
The amount the bill would set aside is equal to 6 percent of corporate business taxes, up from the 4 percent currently dedicated to environmental programs.
The legislation is the latest effort by lawmakers to solve what for the past few years has been a seemingly intractable problem in Trenton. With money for open space virtually depleted, how should New Jersey finance the effort over the long term through a sustainable source of funding?
In the past, three different approaches have been floated — none of which gained traction with either the Legislature or the Christie administration, which has repeatedly promised to propose a stable source of funding to protect open spaces, but has yet to deliver on that pledge.
Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Christopher (Kip) Bateman (R-Somerset), two long-time proponents of open space preservation, are the sponsors of the legislation. It cleared the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which Smith chairs, by a 4-1 vote and now heads to the appropriations committee for consideration.
“We’re in a crisis with open space,’’ said Smith, who last year sought to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to dedicate up to $200 million in sales tax revenue to the effort. “The fund is empty.’’
Smith’s sales tax proposal cleared the Senate, but was never posted for a vote in the Assembly, where the Democratic leadership instead favored a bond issue, the most traditional way of funding open-space preservation. The Senate balked at that idea, saying the state could not afford to incur more debt from borrowing, as well as arguing it is not a sustainable source of funding.
For the past two decades, Smith has also sought to finance open space through a surcharge on water use, but that proposal attracted even less support than the other two.
“We’ve been trying to get it right,’’ said Bateman, who often has joined Smith in a bipartisan effort to figure out a way to fund open space. “Obviously, this isn’t the perfect solution. I understand it’s a work in progress.’’
Not all agreed. Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex) said the measure is not really resolving a revenue problem, merely diverting money from the corporate business tax dedicated to other purposes for open-space preservation.
Many of those who spoke generally in favor of the measure shared those concerns.
Currently, 4 percent of corporate business taxes go to pay for a range of environmental programs — cleaning up leaking underground storage tanks, funding water-quality management programs, and financing improvements to state parks. The bill also would divert other funds from money collected from polluters for restoring damaged wetlands and other sensitive environmental areas.
The NJ Keep It Green coalition, representing about 185 park and conservation advocates supporting a stable source of funding for open space, agreed, saying those funds should be invested in the same areas where environmental damages occurred.
“These funds are not an appropriate way to pay for state preservation needs and would not generate enough reliable funding to address these needs,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of NJ Keep It Green. Other environmentalists echoed those concerns, suggesting that he committee supplant the diversion of natural resources funding with other revenue sources.
Still, the coalition generally backed the measure, as did many other groups, including the New Jersey Sierra Club and New Jersey Environmental Federation, which both opposed the sales-tax initiative last year.
“This is an important step forward for open space,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club. “The most important environmental program in our state’s history is broke and we are finally moving to get it funded.’’
For the most part, business lobbyists opposed the measure, saying it will dry up funding to clean hazardous waste sites and underground storage tanks, which have the potential to leak contaminants into groundwater.
Sara Bluhm, a vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, noted there is a three- to five-year waiting list for homeowners seeking to remove underground storage tanks.