Opinion: Ballot Question to Preserve Open Space Could Hurt More Than It Helps

Siphoning off $4 billion from corporate taxes would drain budget, decimate staff at state Department of Environmental Protection

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter
On November 4, New Jersey voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment dedicating up to $4 billion of corporate taxes over the next 30 years to preservation of open space.

Who could vote against establishing a sustained source of funding for “Green Acres” in this the most crowded state in the nation, with an estimated open-space “deficit” of approximately 1 million acres?

As it turns out, there’s plenty to worry about if this amendment passes.

While saving open space is up there with apple pie and motherhood, voters should be warned that this amendment, Senate concurrent resolution (SCR) 84, is a classic example of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

That’s because SCR-84 does not produce additional revenues; it redirects existing funding away from current environmental programs and into open-space efforts.

Because the new funding formula would be in the state Constitution, like due process and freedom of speech, the Legislature may be powerless to “correct” it if, as seems likely, the results turn out badly for defunded environmental initiatives.

Specifically, the “Peter” getting robbed if this amendment passes is staffing for important water-pollution-control programs that stand to lose millions of dollars a year. According to confidential sources, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has estimated it would have to slice current staffing levels, already hard-hit by budget cuts, to the bone and beyond.

A recent speech to a business group by Assistant DEP Commissioner Dan Kennedy on the topic of “Who Manages the DEP’s Water Resources Programs” hinted at the painful job losses that lie ahead, according to a memo circulated by lobbyist Anthony Russo, reporting on the Kennedy comments.

According to Russo, “Mr. Kennedy touched on the concern the DEP has with a proposed ballot question,” referring to SCR-84, which “seeks to re-distribute a portion of the business taxes collected away from site cleanups to the preservation of open-space.”

Now here’s the kicker: Kennedy said that “approximately 250 DEP staff are compensated through the monies currently collected. If voters approve the change, these staff may be impacted” — a euphemism for “will get fired from their jobs.”

Other confidential memos are more blunt. They say this amendment would have a catastrophic impact on DEP’s current operations. The various water -related programs alone stand to lose $10 million a year as funding levels fall from $15 million in Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15) to $5 million in Fiscal Year 16 (FY16).

Among the programs hit hardest by the impending transfer of revenues from the Corporate Business Tax (CBT) – as mandated by SCR 84 – would be funding for groundwater, surface water and water-quality regulation. That’s a lot of water that may go unregulated.

A confidential source says that passage of SCR 84 will cut funding for about 100 positions in the DEP water programs if the two-thirds of current CBT revenues are redirected to open-space acquisition and protection.

Doubtless because of this collateral damage, not all of the leading environmental groups in the state have lined up in support of this amendment. Noticeably absent from the “Keep It Green Coalition,” an umbrella organization of more than 180 local and state conservation groups pushing hard for the measure, is the Sierra Club.

All this begs a fundamental question: Do we really need to amend the state Constitution to secure adequate funding for open-space issues? The historical evidence says we don’t. In good economic times and in bad times, for half a century — since 1961 — the voters of New Jersey have overwhelmingly approved a baker’s dozen, some 13 “Green Acres Bond issues,” raising more than $4 billion to preserve open space for parks, recreation, wildlife areas and farmland preservation.

So, why not go to the voters again, this time with the 14th bond issue in 2014 to generate another fresh infusion of cash for land acquisition, and leave the current funding mechanism for DEP staff positions intact? Why, in short, must we choose between maintaining staff levels for critical water quality programs versus open-space preservation?