Explainer: Trying to Find a Stable Source of Funds for Open-Space Preservation

Despite continued support from voters, open-space preservation is flat broke, and it may take a constitutional amendment to bring it back to life

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It is three months into another legislative session, and once again advocates who want to preserve New Jersey’s rapidly dwindling open spaces and farmland are trying to establish a stable source of funding for the cause. Urgency is lent to the effort amid long-standing predictions that New Jersey will be the first state to “build out,” exhausting all of its land for future development, according to various studies. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) — chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee — has perhaps been the strongest proponent of open-space preservation. He often calls the attempt to enact a stable source of funding the holy grail of the conservation movement.

What has happened in the past: Open-space preservation is a cause long supported by New Jersey voters. Since 1961, the public has approved all 13 bond issues on the November ballot aimed at preserving open space and farmland. The money raised by the borrowing has helped protect more than 640,000 acres in New Jersey and led to the creation of hundreds of parks and outdoor recreational facilities in all of the state’s 21 counties. In addition, in 1999 then-Gov. Christie Whitman signed a law dedicating $98 million annually for 10 years from the state’s sale tax revenue to preserve open spaces and farmland. Voters also overwhelmingly approved the question at the ballot.

Why it is a concern now: The Whitman initiative expired in 2009, the same year voters approved the most recent open-space bond issue, which provided $400 million to buy up undeveloped land and preserve farmland. That pot of money is virtually exhausted. With policymakers and legislators concerned about rising debt levels, borrowing money from new bond issues has become an unattractive option to many. The state also needs a bigger source of funding to help buy out homeowners and businesses whose structures were severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy and other storms.

What happens next: Hard to predict. In recent years, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has been deeply split on what type of approach to take to funding open-space preservation. Last session, Smith tried to win approval for a measure that would dedicate a portion of the state’s sales tax to provide up to $200 million a year for the effort. The Assembly never considered the measure and instead backed a new bond issue, which never saw the light of day in the state Senate.

Where the Christie administration stands: When he first ran for election in 2009, Gov. Chris Christie pledged to enact a stable source of funding for open space. Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin told legislators on several occasions that he would forward to the governor’s office such a proposal, but so far nothing has happened. Christie, however, did help scuttle Smith’s plan to use sales tax revenue by coming out publicly against it.

What’s on the table so far: Smith’s latest proposal is to fund up to $150 million annually out of corporate business taxes in a constitutional amendment that he hopes to put on the ballot in November. The bill (SCR-84) cleared his committee in March with some bipartisan support. Perhaps more importantly, the state’s environmental community, which also has been at odds over the issue, seemed to generally support the measure, although with some reservations.

What’s not to like about the proposal: It would drain money currently dedicated from taxes used to pay for a variety of environmental programs — cleaning up leaking underground storage tanks, funding water quality management programs, and financing improvements to state parks. The proposal also would divert money from other funds collected from polluters for restoring wetlands and other sensitive environmental areas.

Is there anything else that could solve the problem: Not likely. Smith, as he as done throughout most of his tenure in two decades in the Legislature, has introduced a bill (S-1483) that would impose a surcharge on water consumption to finance open space preservation. But even he acknowledges the bill has no chance of even being posted by legislative leaders.