NJ’s ‘Stable’ Source of Open-Space Funding: Let the Diversions Begin

DEP defends administration’s plan to redirect $20 million from new program to pay salaries for park workers, routine maintenance

State DEP Commissioner Bob Martin
Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin yesterday defended the Christie’s administration’s decision to steer $20 million from a new open-space program to help pay salaries of agency employees who work at state parks and for routine maintenance of the various facilities.

In an appearance before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Martin argued the use of the money falls under stewardship provisions of a ballot question approved by voters last fall to create a stable source of funding to preserve undeveloped land and farms.

“I believe it is fiscally responsible and consistent with the constitutional amendment,’’ Martin told the committee, noting that the ballot question also diverts money away from the agency that was used in the past to clean up hazardous waste sites and to manage the state’s water resources.

The latter provision led some environmentalists to oppose the ballot question, agreeing with the DEP that it jeopardized key programs aimed at protecting water quality and other natural resources.

Martin’s views drew skepticism from some lawmakers and open-space advocates who pushed for adoption of the constitutional amendment. It allots 4 percent of corporate business taxes to open-space preservation — a move initially expected to raise at least $71 million and possibly as much $80 million annually for the cause, according to the latest administration projections. After four years, it would receive 6 percent of corporate business taxes for open-space preservation.

But that is far less than what the state has spent in the past on open space when such funding ran as high as $200 million a year. With a smaller pot of money available, it has triggered a battle among open-space advocates, farmland preservation supporters, and those who want the money to go to historic preservation, all of whom are facing big cuts in their traditional funding.

If the administration’s plan in its proposed budget for the next fiscal year is adopted, that fight is likely to become even more contentious because it would reduce the smaller pot of money by approximately 25 percent.

“I think it is at least debatable whether stewardship can be applied to routine salaries and maintenance (of state parks),’’ said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), a member of the committee.

She argued that voters did not believe they would be funding such efforts instead of open-space programs when they approved the ballot question in November.

The proposed move to pay park salaries and maintenance also drew criticism from Tom Gilbert, chairman of the NJ Keep It Green Coalition, which was the driving force behind getting the open-space issue on the ballot last year.

“Stewardship should not be used to backfill the budget,’’ Gilbert said, positing that the administration is using the new open-space money as a shell game to move funds around. “If the will is there, they could find it in another way.’’

[related]The tactic, however, has been used frequently by the Christie administration — along with support from legislators — to plug holes in past state budgets. For instance, since the administration took office, roughly $1 billion in clean-energy funds –money raised from utility customers on their gas and electric bills — has been diverted to the general fund.

Additional funds have been allocated from various environmental programs as well as the state’s affordable-housing efforts.

“It’s just moving money around,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We’re just moving chairs around on the Titantic because no one wants to raise fees or taxes to do what we need to do.’’

The issue is likely to be decided when the Legislature comes up with its own proposed changes to the Christie budget proposal. The budget needs to be adopted by July 1.