Maybe Next Year: Open-Space Funding Not Likely to Make It to November Ballot

Cancelled Assembly session last chance for measure unless lawmakers take it up in time for early August deadline

open space
It is likely that open-space advocates will have to wait until next year — if then — to get a bill through the Legislature to fund the preservation of undeveloped land, farmland, and historic structures.

With the Assembly canceling a session scheduled for yesterday, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be enough time to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would use corporate business taxes to finance open-space preservation. The measure (SCR-84) needs to be approved early August.

The proposal is the latest unsuccessful effort by a wide-ranging coalition of conservation and recreation groups to come up with a way to fund a variety of programs to protect open spaces at a time when state money for that effort is virtually exhausted.

With the state mired in repeated fiscal crises, an issue that once won broad bipartisan support has failed to achieve any traction with either the Legislature or the Christie administration. The result is that funding for one of the state’s most popular programs — embraced by towns, counties, nonprofit groups, and others –could dry up in the next few years.

There is still a chance the Assembly may come back in the next month to pass the bill, but no session has been scheduled, although that could change, according to Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Democratic majority in the house.

Asked about prospects for the bill, Hester replied in an email message “discussions on it continue, with the concern still being fiscal worries.’’

Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green coalition, said his organization has not given up hope that the measure will still come up for a vote in time to put it on the November ballot. He noted that the measure passed the Senate in a 36-1 vote and has 30 bipartisan sponsors in the Assembly.

“It deserves a vote. These are tough times, arguably, but the state cannot afford to walk away from it,’’ he said. “Maybe they could tend to it now that the (state) budget has been put to rest.’’

Other supporters of the bill were more pessimistic.

“They (the Assembly) haven’t had a hearing in two years on open space. What makes you think they are going to post it?’’ questioned Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Open-space preservation supporters need to come up with another alternative that could win approval from both the Assembly and the Senate and be placed on the ballot for voters to decide, Tittel said. Given past support of the issue by voters — who approved more than a dozen bond issues for this purpose — they are confident it would be backed by the public, if placed on the ballot.

That prospect does not seem to be likely now — even though the latest proposal put forward by Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and others is a scaled-down approach from what has been proposed in the past.

The measure would use existing corporate business taxes dedicated to other environmental programs to finance about $71 million of open-space preservation over the next five years, with an eventual bump in the tax to raise $117 million over the next 25 years.

That is far less than the more than $200 million New Jersey spent on the program in the recent past.

“With the Assembly not here today and most likely out for the rest of the summer, open space will most likely not be on the ballot this year, and the most successful program in state history is coming to an end,’’ Tittel said.

The Christie administration also has repeatedly told lawmakers it would come up with a stable source of funding for open-space preservation, but has never delivered on that pledge.