In the past, the state has relied on funds from its annual budget to finance oversight of its many parks and wildlife management areas, including staffing costs. Last year, $29 million came from the general fund to pay for those programs.
Not anymore, if the Christie administration gets its way with a proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year.
The draft budget would allocate up to 25 percent of as much as $80 million in a new fund approved by voters last November to pay those costs — depleting a dwindling pot of money for open-space preservation and other projects.
For the second time in less than two weeks, that diversion drew scrutiny and criticism from lawmakers, who argued it was not what voters signed up for last fall when they overwhelmingly approved using a portion of corporate business taxes to fund such programs.
Department of Environmental Commissioner Bob Martin yesterday once again defended using nearly $20 million from the fund to pay for salaries and operation and maintenance of parks and wildlife-management areas overseen by the agency.
In a hearing before the Assembly Budget Committee in the Statehouse Annex, Martin called the change “both fiscally responsible and consistent with the language of the constitutional amendment.’’
Martin noted the ballot question diverts money previously targeted to other environmental programs to open space, including funds for managing the state’s water resources as well as publicly funded cleanups of hazardous waste sites.
But in questioning from Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), Martin conceded that the state has yet to spend approximately $80 million in three previous bond issues to fund cleanups. In reply, Martin said those funds would allow cleanups to continue through 2020.
In defending the diversion of money from the new open-space preservation fund, Martin said that some current environmental programs were gutted by the diversion of funds currently dedicated to them from corporate business taxes. He added, “We had to make tough choices to move this money around.’’
[related]Those choices have drawn criticism from advocates of the open-space fund, which establishes a stable source of funding for such projects — an issue they have long pushed.
In the past, those projects were primarily funded by bond issues, which typically provided up to $200 million a year to set aside to protect and preserve open spaces, farmland, and historic structures. Ever since the administration’s proposed budget came out, along with legislative proposals to divvy up the funding, there have been battles over where a much smaller pot of money would be allocated.
Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) called the diversion of open-space money to fund salaries and operation and maintenance at state run parks a “bait-and-switch’’ tactic with voters who approved the constitutional amendment.
Martin disagreed. “Maintaining parks at the end of the day is stewardship,’’ he said, referring to a provision in the constitutional amendment allocating money for that purpose.
But some argue the administration has frequently diverted money from environmental programs, clean-energy efforts, and affordable housing to help plug holes in the state budget. At the hearing, Martin said the money the DEP has collected from fines levied against polluters — a sum ranging between $5.5 million and $7 million—goes into the general fund, too.
In another area that has drawn criticism from lawmakers and others, Martin was asked about delays in releasing a new water-supply master plan, which has not been updated in nearly two decades. He said the plan may be released by the end of the year.
The DEP also came under fire for a proposed settlement with Exxon Mobil that would settle a decade-old lawsuit to restore natural resources damaged by pollution for $225 million. Part of that money, if approved by the courts, would go to pay for fees to an outside counsel hired to handle the case, and part will go to the general fund, although probably not until the next fiscal year, according to Martin.