Senate Panel to Move on Open-Space Bill, But No End to Funding Clash in Sight

No agreement among backers of new bill, Christie administration, and original proponents of ballot issue

open space
A Senate committee is poised to act on a bill that would allocate at least $71 million to preserve open space, farmland and historic structures, and buy out flood-prone properties.

But it won’t be easy.

The bill (S-2769) is to be considered this morning by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. The proposal differs in some ways from how the Christie administration wants to spend the money in its proposed budget. It also faces opposition from some who were behind the idea of creating the fund through a constitutional amendment this past fall.

The ballot question diverts money from the corporate business tax to fund open-space projects with no sunset clause. But it does so at the expense of money now going to fund programs at the state Department of Environmental Protection for cleanup of contaminated waste sites, for water-related programs, and for land-use regulation.

The DEP opposed the ballot question for those reasons.

Some groups also opposed the measure on the same grounds, but most conservation organizations backed the measure, fulfilling a long-standing goal to establish a stable source of funding for open-space preservation. For the most part, the state previously relied on bond issues, which borrowed money for open space — a more expensive proposition, but one that usually provided a bigger pot of money to divvy up among the programs.

Under the pending bill, 64 percent of the money would go to acquire and develop land under Green Acres programs; 4 percent would go to the state’s Blue Acres program that buys up flood-prone properties; 29 percent to farmland preservation; and 3 percent for historic preservation.

With less money to go around, however, there are growing divisions over where it should be spent, partly from groups that have won funding from previous open-space measures.

In its budget proposal, the Christie administration projected corporate business taxes would increase in the upcoming fiscal year, providing $80.1 million, including $32.7 million to DEP programs currently funded by those revenues. It also would allot $20 million to stewardship of state parks, but where that money would go is a concern to conservationists, who fear it would pay salaries of DEP employees at those facilities, or routine operations and maintenance.

Big fights loom over both the Senate bill and administration’s proposed allocation.

Still, some proponents of the ballot question think legislators are moving in the right direction.

“By and large, our feeling is the sponsors have done a good job,’’ said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the New Jersey Keep It Green Coalition, which led the effort to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. ”Overall, it is a good framework.’’

Other proponents of the ballot question disagreed. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said if his group knew how the money would be spent it would not have supported the ballot question.

He particularly criticized money being funneled to nonprofit groups at the same time as cutting spending for programs run by the DEP, as well as too much money going to farmland preservation instead of urban parks.

“We think it’s not spending the money in the right places where the public thinks it should be spent,’’ Tittel said.

If the bill wins approval from the committee, it moves to the Senate appropriations panel. In any case, there are rival bills pending that would allocate the money in a different manner, making resolving the issue more controversial.