Christie’s Reasons for Kicking Back Open-Space Bill Under Scrutiny

Tom Johnson | June 20, 2016 | Energy & Environment
Governor claimed measure must also fund Blue Acres, but the DEP says that program has $120 million in its coffers

When Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a widely supported bill allocating money to preserve open space and farmland last month, he cited its failure to allot any money to the state’s Blue Acres program.

The program provides funds for the state to purchase flood-prone properties and move homeowners out of harm’s way — a priority given the destructive flooding suffered by residents repeatedly in recent years.

But a dispute over how much money is still available for the program is part of an ongoing debate over how to allocate money from a constitutional ballot question approved 17 months ago, and potentially hold up funding for tens of millions of dollars of other environmental projects.

“It is unacceptable to allocate nothing for Blue Acres given the devastating flooding recently endured by our state’s residents, and our enormous efforts in the aftermath of Sandy to prevent this flooding from happening again,’’ the governor said in his message.

Yet weeks earlier, the state Department of Environmental Protection, which administers the program, told the Legislature the agency is still drawing down federal funds and that there is money available to buy out approximately 1,100 properties.

“There is no immediate need to use (CBT) corporate business taxes for Blue Acres purposes,’’ the department responded to a question about the program from page five of the Office of Legislative Services report on DEP’s proposal for the 2017 fiscal year budget.

The department’s view is buttressing arguments of a coalition of conservationists who want lawmakers to override the governor on the bill (S-969), a step that would free up funds for open-space, historic, and farmland-preservation projects. The funds would come from a portion of corporate business taxes dedicated to conservation projects under a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by votes in November 2014.

None of the money from that fund has ever been allocated — other than $20 million diverted by the Christie administration last year to pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks. Legislators and backers of the ballot question say voters never anticipated using money for that purpose, which would again happen in next year’s budget proposed by the governor.

Christie insists funding parks is allowed under the constitutional amendment, a point he emphasized in his conditional veto. “The bill attempts to prevent the use of this money to maintain and preserve parks within our state, which the constitutional amendment clearly contemplates,’’ he said.

In his conditional veto, the governor also restored funding for the Blue Acres program, But according to the DEP, there is $121.4 million still available in federal funds to be drawn down with another $171 million either already expended or committed.

Backers of the bill do not oppose Blue Acres funding, but argue other areas should be given a priority since money is available money for ongoing acquisition programs.

Kelly Mooij, coordinator of the NJ Keep It Green, a coalition that lobbied for the stable funding source for open space, said the DEP has clearly shown there are sufficient funds to meet the needs of the program. “It’s a disingenuous argument,’’ she said, referring to saying Blue Acres needs the money.

Noting that this year’s allocation would be less than in past years, with fewer funds, “we need to ensure funding for other areas, Mooij said.

“They don’t need this money until the implementation legislation sunsets,’’ added Ed Potosnak, chairman of the coalition.