Christie Says ‘No-Go’ on Open-Space Funding, Second Time This Year

Governor accuses preservation advocates of micromanaging assets by deciding where and when they’ll be disbursed

open space
Gov. Chris Christie yesterday conditionally vetoed a bill to provide tens of millions of dollars in funding to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures — extending a dispute that has dried up money for such projects.

His conditional veto marks the second time this year the governor has blocked a legislative plan to allocate funds from a constitutional amendment approved 17 months ago by voters to use corporate business taxes to fund preservation projects.

Barring a compromise, it could mean towns, counties, and nonprofits seeking to secure funding to protect undeveloped and agricultural land and to establish parks may end up waiting months to move forward on the projects, if not abandoning them.

Conservation groups are likely to press legislators to override the conditional veto, which has been done only once in Christie’s six-plus years in office. Their main beef with the administration is that it’s diverting $20 million from the fund to pay maintenance and salaries, something never intended by voters who approved the ballot question.

The bill would have allocated the first money from the ballot question — other than $20 million used to pay for park operations — to preservation purposes, setting aside $146 million over the next two years. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) called the bill the most important environmental measure in this session.

In his veto message, Christie objected to “micromanaging’’ the use of corporate business taxes by dictating percentages for specified uses, such as Green Acres projects, and sought greater flexibility in assigning where the money would go. To that end, the governor proposed using the fund to “maintain and preserve parks, which the constitutional amendment clearly contemplates.’’

Ed Potosnak, chair of the Keep It Green coalition, said the proposed changes would accomplish that goal by broadly defining stewardship as ‘’routine operations and maintenance.’’ The coalition is comprises 180 conservation and park groups.

“It is really astounding. It’s not how we ever defined it,’’ said Potosnak, who noted that parks operations always had come out of the general fund. “He’s really opening up a Pandora’s box to use this money for just about anything.’’

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill, shared that fear. “I have no doubt that this conditional veto was crafted to maximize the kind of money he already has stolen,’’ he said, referring to diversions from the corporate business taxes. “At the end of the day, it is just another jewel in the crown of an abysmal environmental record.’’

Christie administration officials blamed the ballot question for diverting corporate business taxes from other environmental programs, such as water monitoring, and for creating a hole in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s budget that had to be made up from the general fund.

Potosnak said he could not see any situation in which the coalition would support the changes recommended by the governor and held out hope lawmakers will override the conditional veto.

Whether that happens is uncertain.

“Will Republicans finally break rank with the governor on this issue? They should. Will they?’’ asked McKeon.

The dispute over paying for the operation of state parks may be headed ultimately to the courts. A legal analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services concluded that the administration lacked the appropriate language in the current state budget to divert $20 million to pay salaries and other costs at state parks.