Fine Print: Reading Between the Line Items in State DEP’s Proposed Budget

Tom Johnson | April 24, 2015 | Energy & Environment
A modest bump in spending should allow agency to hold onto staff in coming fiscal year

What it does: In fiscal year 2016, the Christie administration has proposed a $359 million budget for the agency that oversees environmental programs in the state, a modest increase of $3.9 million from the current fiscal year budget. The DEP commissioner said the budget will allow the agency to maintain its current staffing levels.

What’s different about funding levels this year: The federal government will decrease its funding to the state by $285.5 million this year, primarily due to a decrease in aid to New Jersey related to the effects of Hurricane Sandy, according to the state Office of Legislative Services.

What’s new about money flowing into the agency: Last November, voters approved a new source of stable source of funding from corporate business taxes to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures. This year, it will provide about $80 million for that cause, but the administration’s proposed budget allocates $20 million of that money to pay for salaries of park employees and maintenance.

Why some groups do not like the new initiative: It diverts money from the corporate business taxes previously set aside for other environmental programs, such as cleaning up polluted sites and doing critical work to manage New Jersey’s water resources

[related]What are top funding priorities in the next budget: Most of them relate to Hurricane Sandy, an event that led many sewage treatment plants and water-supply facilities to lose power during the storm, some of which caused enormous damage. For instance, the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission faces a $1 billion bill to repair and improve its resiliency to extreme storms, such as Sandy.

Where else is spending going: The state and federal governments are planning to spend more than $1 billion for a comprehensive coastal protection system, some of which involves building dunes on Jersey Shore beaches and restoring beaches eroded by the storm.

What some conservationists do not like about the budget: With only $80 million in open-space funding available this year, they oppose the administration’s plan to divert nearly $20 million to pay for park salaries. In the past, up to $200 million was doled out for open-space programs, some of which went to nonprofit conservation organizations.

What’s likely to happen: The big battle on the budget will be over how money from a smaller pot of funds for open space, farmland, and historic preservation will be divvied up, an issue that already has traditional recipients of the program fighting over their share. The administration’s current plan differs significantly from versions introduced in the Legislature, which is likely leading to a lot of changes in what has been proposed.