Administration, Lawmakers Could Clash Over Who Gets Open-Space Funding

Tom Johnson | February 26, 2015 | Energy & Environment
As predicted by some environmentalists and legislators, various potential recipients are getting testy about how much money they’ll receive

heron open space
The Christie administration is proposing how the state should allocate money to open-space preservation projects in its new budget, but its plan differs in significant respects from how lawmakers want to divvy up the funds, which could trigger a fight.

The good news, however, is that the administration is anticipating a slight boost in revenue collected from corporate business taxes, which could mean the program has $80 million to spend rather than previous projections of $71 million. That depends on whether those projections hold up, a recurring failure with the administration’s past budgets.

With less money available than in previous years for such projects, however, the differences could create deep divisions among the many groups, towns, counties and others seeking to obtain a share of the funding — as well as legislators. Some key lawmakers have their own priorities as to how the money should be spent, including more money for farmland preservation.

The issue will be played out in budget negotiations that could drag on until the end of June, when the state needs to adopt a fiscal plan for the upcoming year. The debate follows approval of a ballot question last November by voters that would divert corporate business taxes to preserve open space and farmland, as well as fund other programs.

The successful ballot question established a constitutional amendment that dedicates at least $71 million for the next four years to those conservation programs, and at least $121 million in succeeding years. Even with less money than was appropriated for open space in past years from bond issues, conservationists welcomed the establishment of a stable source of funding.

Under the administration’s proposed budget, $80.1 million would be set aside for open-space programs, including $27.9 million in loans and grants for preservation and acquisition of lands for recreational use. That amount is a far cry from what a draft bill in the Senate would allocate for such programs: $45 million.

The administration’s proposal would allot $16.9 million to preserve farmlands in New Jersey, a bit less than the $21 million suggested in the Senate legislation.

The Budget in Brief document provided broad outlines of where other money from the ballot question would be spent, without providing any details. For instance, the proposal would apportion $20 million to stewardship of state parks, but where that money would go is not disclosed, although some environmentalists said it might be used to pay for salaries at state parks.

The allotment of money to stewardship of public lands has been a controversial issue among open-space advocates, some of whom say too much money is going to nonprofit groups rather than urban areas.

‘There’s too much money going into stewardship,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Kelly Mooij, coordinator of the New Jersey Keep It Green Coalition — the prime backer of the new proposal — also raised concerns about stewardship, saying her organization does not want those funds go to routine operations and maintenance.

“There needs to be funding to preserve open space as well as preserving funding for farmland,’’ she said,

The DEP declined to comment on the proposal, suggesting questions should be referred to the Department of Treasury. The department did not respond to questions submitted to the agency in an email as requested by a spokesman.

The administration’s proposed budget also would give $1.4 million for historic preservation and $13.9 million to capital improvements to state parks, a bit less than what has been spent on in the past.

The budget proposal also allocates $32.7 million to programs previously funded by corporate business taxes — cleanup of toxic sites and underground storage tanks, as well as an assortment of water-related programs. The administration’s figure is down from $103 million in the current budget, which led some to oppose the ballot question.

“As we expected, there were deep cuts in water resources, site remediation, and land-use regulations,’’ said Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Wolfe was one of the biggest critics of the ballot question for precisely those reasons.