Open-Space Preservation Funding Gets Put on Legislative Fast Track

Tom Johnson | January 26, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Bill’s sponsor says measure is the most important environmental bill of the current session

State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex)
Hoping to free up funds sooner rather than later, a legislative committee yesterday quickly revived a bill to provide money to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures.

In a unanimous vote, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved legislation to allocate approximately $146 million over the next two years from corporate business taxes to enable towns, counties, and others to acquire and protect open spaces and agricultural land.

An identical bill had been pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie last week, along with dozens of other measures passed on the final day of the lame-duck legislative session earlier this month.

Even though money for the open-space programs is being collected, it cannot be distributed until implementing legislation is signed into law, which gives urgency to resolving the issue as quickly as possible.

“Hopefully, we get it on the governor’s desk soon,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of the bill (S-969) and the previous measure in the lame-duck session. “This time we are going to get it done.’’

Conservation groups and others echoed those concerns, saying it is important to start releasing the funds for the programs, some of which have run out of money. The bill implements a constitutional amendment dedicating a portion of corporate business taxes to open space, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2014.

“Uncertainty about the status of funding will persist until a compromise solution is reached between the Legislature and the Christie administration,’’ said Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

“The urgency to release these voter-dedicated funds increases with each passing day,’’ agreed Ed Potosnak, chair of New Jersey Keep It Green, a coalition of more than a hundred conservation, historic-preservation, and park advocates who had lobbied to put the constitutional amendment to voters.

Christie opposed the ballot question, even though he campaigned during his initial run for governor vowing to create a stable, long-term fund for open-space programs. Christie’s did not spell out a specific reason why he vetoed the most recent open-space bill, but his press office blamed it on the more than 100 bills approved by lawmakers on the last day of the previous legislative session.

If the bill wins approval, it would establish general parameters where the money could be spent during the next four years. Smith called the legislation the most important environmental bill in the current session. He noted $66 million has yet to be allocated from taxes collected in the current fiscal year, which ends July 1, and another $80 million should be available in the next budget.

The bulk of the money would go for the state’s popular Green Acres program (61 percent), which funds open-space acquisition and park development, including in urban areas. More money is allocated for urban communities than in the past, Potosnak, noted. Thirty-one percent would be used for farmland preservation projects and 5 percent set aside for historic preservation.

There was some criticism of the bill for failing to include a specific-set aside for the state’s Blue Acres program, which funds acquisition of flood-prone properties. But Smith and others said there is federal money and yet to be allocated state funds for those projects.