State Lawmakers Warn Christie to Keep His Hands Off Open-Space Funding

Tom Johnson | April 8, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Governor argues that money set aside for preservation programs can be used to pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks

The Legislature yesterday gave final approval to a bill that would allocate more than $140 million to fund long-stalled open-space and farmland preservation projects, setting up a possible confrontation with Gov. Chris Christie.

The bill (S-969) easily passed without debate in the Assembly, but it differs in one key aspect from how the governor wants to spend money from a 2014 ballot initiative that authorized using a portion of corporate business taxes for land-preservation program.

But in his proposed budget, Christie wants to use approximately $20 million out of the program to pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks, an allocation not included in the bill approved by lawmakers.

The governor pocket vetoed an identical open-space measure this past January at the end of the lame-duck session, although he did not cite any specific reasons for not signing the bill..

An opinion from the Office of Legislative Services said lawmakers did not authorize the appropriation when they approved the budget last June. The administration says the use of money to pay salaries and maintenance is permissible.

Some lawmakers oppose the diversion, saying it was not what voters approved when they passed a constitutional amendment dedicating a portion of corporate business taxes for open-space purposes.

Many conservationists and the New Jersey Farm Bureau, which had lobbied hard for passage of the ballot question, share that view. The initiative establishes a permanent funding source for land preservation instead of relying on state bond issues every few years.

“The legislation now on the governor’s desk is representative of voter intent, ensuring that the vast majority of available funds are used as intended: for the acquisition of farmland and open-space parcels statewide,’’ said Ryck Suydam, president of the farm bureau, the state’s largest agricultural organization.

Other than the diversion of $20 million for salaries and maintenance at state parks, the bill would mark the first allocation from the new fund since it was passed a year-and-half ago.

Even so, it still would provide less money for preservation programs, including historic structures, than was typically handed out to counties, local governments, and others in the past. It was not unusual for as much as $200 million a year to be spent.

The bill, approved in a 53-16-3 vote, would lay out a spending program allocating about $80 million in next year’s budget and another $66 million in yet-to-be allocated money from the previous year.

With less money available, the legislation caused further division in the typically fractured environmental community as to how the money should be spent. Some criticized the lack of any funding set aside for Blue Acres, a program that buys up flood-prone properties from owners who are willing to sell. Others objected to nonprofit groups getting grants for stewardship of open space and other lands.

Under the bill, the bulk of the money would go to the state’s Green Aces program (61 percent), which funds open-space acquisition and park development. Thirty-one percent would be used for farmland preservation and 5 percent for historic preservation.