Poll Shows Voters Favor Using Corporate Business Taxes to Fund Open Space

Sizable majority favor scheme, but proposed constitutional amendment can't gain traction in Assembly

In a last-minute push, advocates of a proposal to fund open-space preservation rolled out a poll yesterday that found a sizable majority of New Jersey voters support using a portion of corporate business taxes to protect undeveloped land, farms, and historic structures.

According to the poll, 76 percent of the 600 likely voters surveyed back the proposal.

The poll was commissioned by NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of more than 185 park and conservation groups working to create a long-term, dedicated source of funding for open-space preservation.

The Senate is expected to vote on a bill (SCR-84) on Thursday, but whether it is even posted in the Assembly is the bigger question. Both houses are expected to recess after a session on Monday and would not return soon enough to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Under the measure, $71 million of corporate business tax revenue — now used for a variety of environmental programs — would be dedicated to preserving open space, farmland, and protecting historic structures. After five years, the tax would be raised to increase funding to $117 million annually for the next 25 years.

The proposal is the latest being pushed by conservationists and lawmakers to replenish financing for open space preservation, which is virtually exhausted. Prior funding sources were primarily bond issues approved by voters.

“The results of this survey make clear that New Jersey voters of all stripes understand the critical importance of protecting clean and plentiful drinking water, providing parks that improve quality of life, and preserving farms and historic treasures,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of NJ Keep It Green.

“The voters should be given the opportunity to decide on continuing New Jersey’s tradition of investing in parks and preservation,’’ he said.

In the poll, 78 percent of those surveyed think the Legislature should put the measure on the ballot to let voters decide, while only 14 percent disagreed.

Nonetheless, the measure faces an uncertain future, although there is growing support among Republicans for the bill in the Assembly, according to Gilbert. But it has yet to be considered by any committee or posted for a vote in the Assembly.

The Assembly Democratic leadership is still discussing whether to pose the bill, according to Tom Hester, a spokesman for the majority.

“I don’t think it’s dead,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a supporter of the measure. “It’s still a heavy lift.’’

The sponsors of the measure still expressed hope the bill could get on the November ballot.

“This is a very modest approach that will not impart the state budget for the next five years, and will not increase taxes, fees, or debt,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the bill.

Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset), a cosponsor of the bill agreed. “This approach to preservation is a fiscally conservative and responsible approach to protecting our water and environment.’’

While the proposal enjoys widespread support from the conservation community, it has drawn opposition from business organizations who fear it will only deepen the state’s financial crisis.

The Christie administration has repeatedly promised to come up with a long-term stable source of funding to preserve open space, but has yet to deliver on that promise, first pledged by Gov. Chris Christie during his initial run for office.

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