Typically, funding for open-space and farmland preservation is about as controversial as motherhood and apple pie. Not this year, apparently.
Gov. Chris Christie yesterday pocket vetoed a bill to allocate $80 million to protect open space and farmland, as well as to preserve historic structures, casting uncertainty over what is usually a routine annual funding ritual.
The veto could leave municipalities, counties, and organizations that had been hoping to gain funding for preservation projects hostage to the vagaries of the state budget process for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Christie did not elaborate on why he killed the bill (S-2769), along with dozens of other passed in the final days of the previous legislative session.
His spokesman, Joelle Farrell, offered no specific rationale for the veto either, when asked. In general, however, Farrell said, “Having the Legislature pass more than 100 bills in such a hasty and scrambled way, praying for them to be rubber stamped, is never a good formula for effectively doing public business.’’
The governor did, however, sign more than 90 bills yesterday. The open-space bill was one of more than 10 environmental measures pocket vetoed by Christie.
Some, however, said the governor may have other plans for the $80 million. “He already has decided where he wants to spend the money,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. In the current fiscal year, the governor and Legislature used $20 million of the open-space fund to pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks, he noted. In the past, the general fund absorbed that cost.
The bill did not detail specific projects to be funded by the $80 million, this year’s annual allocation from a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2014 that dedicated a portion of the state’s corporate business taxes to a stable source of funding for open space.
Passed unanimously in the Senate and with bipartisan support in the Assembly, the bill spells out in general terms where funds would have been allocated: 61 percent of the money would have gone to the state’s Green Acres program ($51.3 million); 31 percent to farmland preservation ($24.8 million); and 5 percent to historic preservation ($4 million).
The Green Acres allotment would have been divided among state acquisition-and-development projects: $28.3 million for local governments and $3.6 million in grants to nonprofit groups.
NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of more than 180 park and conservation groups, expressed disappointment with the pocket veto, but vowed to work with the governor and Legislature to distribute the voter-approved funds.
“The urgency to release these voter-dedicated funds increases with each passing day,’’ said Ed Potosnak, chair of the coalition. “We are not going away,’’ added Kelly Mooij, coordinator of the coalition.
Next month, the governor unveils his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, which could provide an answer as to where and how the administration wants the $80 million spent. Typically, a decision on funding is not reached with the Legislature until the end of June when it adopts a budget. If the governor disagrees with the Legislature, he can veto specific items in the spending plan.