Preserving agricultural land in the Delaware Bay region. Protecting feeder streams to a major source of drinking water in the Highlands. Buying up undeveloped land in the Sourland Mountains.
Those are some of the projects hoping for funding from an open-space initiative approved by voters 18 months ago — if a bill awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s decision is signed into law.
But it’s a big “if.” Christie vetoed a virtually identical bill earlier this year, and has expressed reservations about the latest measure (S-969), which once again passed with bipartisan support in the Legislature. The governor said he wants flexibility in deciding where the money should go.
The debate over how to use money from the open-space fund, particularly $20 million proposed to pay salaries of staff and maintenance at state parks, is shaping up as one of the more controversial side battles during deliberations over next year’s state budget.
Conservationists and legislators say that was not the intent of voters in approving a constitutional amendment in November 2014 to set aside at least $80 million of corporate business taxes each year to preserve open space and farmland and protect historic structures.
Worried a new veto is in the offing, a group of open-space advocates yesterday urged the governor to sign the bill on his desk, which does not include funding to pay the parks’ employees salaries.
“That was never the intent of voters,’’ Sen. Christopher (Kip) Bateman (R-Somerset), a co-sponsor of the bill on the governor’s desk. If signed, it would allocate $146 million over the next two years for preservation projects.
If that happens, according to Bill Kibler, policy director of the Raritan Headwaters Association, it could provide the last piece of funding to acquire a 150-acre parcel in the Highlands, where several streams feed into the south branch of the Raritan River.
“My message to the governor: Sign this bill. We need the funding,’’ Kibler said at a press conference in the State House.
The legislation would mark the first allocation of money from the ballot question since it was approved, although the administration also diverted $20 million from the fund last year to pay employees’ salaries at parks. A legal opinion from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services is that the diversion is not authorized under the current state budget. The governor’s office disputed the opinion, saying the diversion is a permissible use of the funds.
If the dispute is not resolved, it could wind up in court. “It really borders here on what is constitutionally permitted,’’ said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), who sponsored the bill in the lower house. “The courts may be the way to attack this.’’
In the meantime, projects may fall by the wayside unless the bill is signed, according to conservationists.
According to Alison Mitchell, policy director for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, there are dozens of applications pending to preserve more than 1,600 acres of farmland in Salem County, as well as the acquisition of 250 aces in the Sourland Mountains in Hunterdon and Mercer counties.
‘’It’s time to give the public what they voted for, and fund these crucial preservation programs,’’ said New Jersey Farm Bureau President Ryck Suydam. “There has not been an appropriation of funds for farmland preservation since 2013, and this lack of funding is crippling the program.’’
Christie has until May 23 to act on the bill. The governor pocket vetoed the previous open-space bill without explaining why he did so.