Open-Space Funding Gets One Last Chance to Get Spot on November Ballot

Assembly plans to post measure Monday that would use corporate business tax to establish stable source of funding for popular program

open space
The effort to establish a new source of funding for preserving open space, farmland, and historic structures is not dead after all.

The Assembly plans to post a measure (SCR-84) on Monday giving proponents of open-space preservation a last-ditch opportunity to resuscitate a program that is essentially broke — even though it has won widespread bipartisan and public support in the past.

Unless the Assembly approves the measure by Monday, it has no chance of getting on the ballot this fall. The resolution proposes a constitutional amendment that would authorize at least $70 million a year to protect open space, farmland, and historic structures to be taken out of the corporate business tax already dedicated to other environmental programs.

Beginning in 2019, the share taken out of the corporate business tax for open space would be raised from 4 percent to 6 percent, boosting the amount that could be dedicated to open-space preservation to $117 million annually.

The resolution already was overwhelmingly approved by the state Senate 36-1, with enough votes to get it on the ballot in November. Even if the Assembly approves the bill, however, it will still require 48 votes to give New Jerseyans a chance to decide on it in the fall, a chancy proposition given how many legislators show up for a session in late summer.

Still, Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essesx), a sponsor of the resolution, remained optimistic. “All of the leadership has been open minded and supportive,’’ he said, adding that there are nine Republican cosponsors of the bill.

Conservation groups have lobbied for the issue — developing a stable source of funding to preserve undeveloped land and farmland — for years and have put forward a variety of programs. With the state’s fiscal problems, however, none have gained any traction. That despite the fact that financing the preservation of land, providing the funding to develop parks in local communities, and protecting farms and historic structures has been one of the state’s most popular programs.

“The Assembly has an opportunity to ensure that New Jersey’s bipartisan legacy of protecting open space and clean water doesn’t come to an end,’’ said Kelly Mooij, coordinator of NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of 185 park and conservation advocates working to push for passage of a stable source of funding.

“If it doesn’t happen Monday, it won’t happen and will leave a lot of preservation work in limbo,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of NJ Keep It Green.

New Jersey voters have long backed measures to preserve open space, approving 13 bond issues to the cause going back over five decades, but questions about increasing the state’s debt has led lawmakers to avoid taking that route.

Other environmentalists were also happy the Assembly may consider the bill on Monday.

“If it’s posted, it most likely will pass and be on the ballot in November,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s good news.’’

If the measure does win final legislative approval, Gov. Chris Christie has no opportunity to block the bill since a proposed constitutional amendment goes on the ballot without his review.