Voters in New Jersey will get the chance this fall to approve a constitutional amendment that would establish a new, stable source of funding to provide at least $70 million annually for preservation of open space, farmland and historic structures.
In a rare August session, the Assembly yesterday, on the last possible day for a vote, passed a measure (SCR-84) with enough votes to ensure that the question will be on the ballot this November.
It was a huge victory for a wide coalition of environmental conservation groups, parkland advocates and other organizations that have lobbied for several years for legislation to replenish the state’s existing preservation program, which is virtually broke.
The measure, which needed 48 votes to make the ballot, passed easily in a 58-9-1 vote. There was no debate on the legislation, which didn’t surprise supporters of the initiative.
The proposal seemed dead in late June, when the Assembly broke for its traditional summer recess without posting the measure — even though it had passed the Senate easily, with only one “no” vote. But the old maxim, “Never say never,’’ proved true – the vote came on the very last day for putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall.
“Open-space preservation is an issue that knows no party or ideology,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the legislation, in a statement after the vote.
Tom Gilbert, chairman of NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of 185 park and conservation groups, echoed that sentiment. “We always thought if it got an opportunity for a vote, it would have overwhelming support,’’ he said.
The approval was the second proposed constitutional amendment to be put on the fall ballot yesterday, the other being the bail-reform measure pressed by Gov. Chris Christie last week in a special legislative session.
The bill scheduling a public vote on an amendment that would change how judges determine bail for different offenders, passed with 60 votes, eight abstentions, and none opposed. The Senate approved the legislation last week.
When Gov. Chris Christie called lawmakers into a special session to deal with bail reform, the Democratic leadership in the Assembly decided to post the open-space question as well.
Initially, the preservation program would get $70 million a year from the state’s corporate business tax revenues, which are already dedicated to other environmental programs. Beginning in 2019, the share taken out for open-space preservation would rise from 4 percent to 6 percent, increasing the amount to at least $117 million annually.
Finding Funds in Tough Fiscal Times
The proposal for solving the open-space funding dilemma is a scaled-down version of what was originally proposed. Sponsors had sought to divert $150 million annually from the corporate business tax revenue, but the amount was trimmed when some senators balked at diverting that much money from the fund.
While advocates said it would be foolish to allow the open-space program to lapse, critics of the measure argued the state could ill afford to tap existing revenue to fund the preservation efforts, given New Jersey’s precarious fiscal condition.
“Although open space is an important initiative, our priorities should be putting our state on a firm fiscal footing,’’ said Assemblyman David Rible (R-Monmouth).
“This legislation has significant, long-term impacts on the state budget,’’ agreed Daryn Iwicki, state director of Americans for Prosperity in a statement released after leadership decided to post the bill. He faulted lawmakers for deciding to do so without holding a committee hearing in the Assembly.
With the proposal assured of being on the ballot, the next issue is whether voters will back the measure in a state that seems to bounce from one fiscal crisis to another.
“Now comes the real work in trying to get this passed,’’ said Jeff Tittle, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He predicted the proposal will face a well-financed opposition campaign from Americans for Prosperity.
The question goes directly on the ballot without any review by Gov. Chris Christie, who had opposed previously efforts to divert state tax revenue to preserve open space. It is unclear whether Christie – who promised during his initial run for governor to enact a stable source of funding for open-space preservation, but has never come up with any specific approach – will get involved in actively trying to influence the vote.
Proponents of the measure are confident it will win voter approval.
“This desperately needed source of long-term stable funding will go a long way to protecting some of the state’s best assets, and we know voters will support that ideal,’’ McKeon said.
While saying he was not taking anything for granted, Gilbert said voters understand the value of investing in preservation.