Open-Space Bill Sails Through Senate, but Assembly Deadline Looms

If lower chamber doesn't act, voters will not be able to consider constitutional amendment come next Election Day

State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex)
With bipartisan support, the Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved a measure (SCR-84) to provide a stable source of funding for open-space preservation from corporate business taxes over the next 30 years.

By a 35-1 vote, the Senate passed a measure constitutionally dedicating a portion of corporate business taxes to support efforts to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures.

Its fate in the Assembly, however, remains uncertain at best. Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Assembly Majority, said the issue remains under discussion. But sources close to the situation say the Democratic leadership already has ruled out posting the measure before they break for the summer recess.

Unless they adopt the measure by early August, there is no chance of it getting on the November ballot to let voters decide the issue. If not, state funding for open space and other preservation efforts will virtually come to a halt because of a lack of money, according to conservationists.

“We’re broke,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who has sponsored numerous bills to establish a long-term stable source funding for open space preservation. “This is needed.’’

Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) , a co-sponsor, agreed.

“This is not a perfect bill, but it is the best we have come up with,’’ he said. “The administration has been talking about coming up with a stable source of funding for open space, but we have yet to see a plan.

Gov. Chris Christie during his initial run for office promised to develop a stable source of funding for open space, criticizing former Gov. Jon Corzine for failing to do so. But his administration has not made good on his repeated promises to do so.

In the past, voters have consistently supported efforts to preserve open space through 13 bond issues, but lawmakers have shunned that approach in the past couple of years because of fears of increasing the state’s already high debt level.

Under the current measure, four current corporate business taxes dedicated to existing environmental programs would be diverted to fund open space], providing about $71 million for the next five years, beginning in fiscal year 2015 — pending voter approval. After 2015, the corporate business tax would be bumped up to 6 percent, providing about $117 million over the next 25 years.

Smith called the proposal a fiscally conservative way to fund open space in New Jersey, a program that has won wide support from conservationists, municipalities, and nonprofit groups.

Backers of the measure said they were still pressing the Assembly to post the measure before the budget break.

“There’s still time and we hope the Assembly will post it,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of more than 185 conservation and recreation groups working to get a stable source of funding for open space.

“It deserves a vote and ultimately voters need to be heard,’’ he said. In a poll commissioned by the coalition this week, it found that 76 percent of likely voters supported the proposal.

But the Assembly adjourned yesterday without acting on the measure and it is unclear whether they will return before the summer recess, although a session is still scheduled for Monday, but that too is uncertain.

The plan provides much less funding for open space preservation than previous proposals supported by the coalition and others. Between 1996 and 2010, the state averaged about $238 million a year to protect farmland, preserve historic structures and open space.

“But given the budget problems, this is the best we can do at this time’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Smith echoed that argument.

“Open space is something we cannot ignore; it must be a priority,’’ he said in a statement released by Senate Democrats. “This bill finds a balance between needed funds to preserve land, while understanding the tenuous balance of our current budget.

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