Open-Space Preservation Could Be Back on Ballot Come November

Proposed constitutional amendment would dedicate portion of corporate business tax to provide long-sought stable source of funding for open-space efforts

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen)
A slimmed-down approach to preserving open space and farmland in New Jersey yesterday won approval from a key legislative committee.

With bipartisan support, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted out a measure (SCR-84) that would place a referendum question on the November ballot asking voters to support a measure that would dedicate a portion of the state’s corporate business tax to fund the effort.

The constitutional amendment is a scaled-down version of a measure earlier this year proposed by its sponsors — a fact reflected by the state’s serious budgetary problems, which project a $1.6 billion deficit in this year’s and next year’s budgets.

The issue is a top priority of many conservation groups and others who say the state will run out of funding to preserve undeveloped land and farmland unless New Jersey comes up with a new and stable source of financing those projects.

The approval by the committee marks a modest victory for proponents of the measure, but time is running out to get the bill approved by the Legislature before it breaks for a summer recess in July.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) are the sponsors, both of whom have been pushing open-space preservation proposals that have failed to win approval in past legislative sessions.

Their latest proposal was trimmed back by the Senate budget panel. Instead of $150 million from corporate business taxes dedicated to preservation efforts, the new proposal would provide only $71 million beginning in the state’s Fiscal Year 2016 and continue for four years. The reduction is a concession to budgetary problems facing New Jersey.

Beginning in 2019, the amount of money raised by the measure would rise to at least $117 million, but could hit $150 million, depending on revenues raised by the corporate business tax by diverting 6 percent of revenues instead of only 4 percent.

Smith called the measure an “extremely modest’’ proposal, given the massive budget shortfall facing the state this year. But the proposal still falls far short of the $200 million the state typically spent on preservation programs each year in the past. “It’s as fiscally conservative an approach that we can possibly find,’’ he told the committee.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the chairman of the budget committee, said he only agreed to post the measure when it was scaled back from the original proposal. He said the proposal is revenue neutral for the next few years.

The committee substitute won approval from environmental groups, despite its lower funding for open-space preservation.

“Is it enough? No,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the New Jersey Keep It Green Coalition, an organization of more than 100 groups advocating for years for a stable source of funding for open space. “Obviously these are difficult times.’’

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Cub, endorsed the proposal, saying the program will continue one of the most successful programs run by the state, which is virtually running out of funding. “It will get us by until times are better,’’ he said.

The measure drew opposition from some.

Michael Egenton, a senior vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, questioned what impact the diversion of corporate business taxes would have on the overall state’s budget situation.

Others were more blunt.

“The state is in a fiscal mess right now,’’ said Mike Proto of Americans for Prosperity. “This bill will tie our hands on revenues for the next 30 years.’’

Whether the Christie administration backs the plan is uncertain. Gov. Chris Christie vowed to enact a stable source of funding for open-space preservation when he initially ran for office, but has never put forward a plan. In the past, the governor has opposed efforts by Smith to use sales tax revenue to fund the effort.

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