Overriding Conditional Veto May Be Only Way to Free Up Open-Space Funds

If the Legislature doesn’t act -- and act successfully -- there will once again be no money to preserve open space and historic structures

The funding to preserve open space, farmland, and historic structures in New Jersey this year likely will hinge on the fate of an override of a conditional veto issued by Gov. Chris Christie.

When the Senate reconvenes on Monday, lawmakers are scheduled to try to override the governor on his conditional veto last month of a bill (S-969) to appropriate $146 million to buy up and protect open space and improve parks.

In the absence of funding, farmland preservation projects have not moved forward, historic preservation has dried up, and counties and towns have had to delay recreational and open-space projects.

Unless the override happens, and the Assembly follows suit, there may be no money allocated again this year to spend on such projects out of a new fund created by voters in November 2014 in passing a constitutional amendment.

In the past, passage of bills to fund Green Acres projects and preserve farmland and historic structures had been a routine matter, attracting little attention and no controversy. Not anymore.

Since the voters easily approved a constitutional amendment diverting a portion of corporate business taxes to preservation efforts, the Christie administration and Legislature have been locked in an impasse on how and where the money can and should be spent. As a result, no money has been awarded for such projects, although the administration diverted nearly $20 million from the fund this year to pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks.

Christie has proposed doing the same thing again this year, saying it is a permissible use of funds in line with the ballot question approved by voters, a view disputed by legislators and most conservation groups. Instead, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has propose to fund the parks by diverting $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund, which makes a lot of other interest groups unhappy.

Even if the Legislature does override the governor — no sure bet given it has yet to do so in Christie’s seven years in office — what happens next is uncertain. Some environmentalists, such as Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the governor may just refuse to spend the money when he signs next year’s budget, due to approved by June 30.

That would be fine with some critics of the ballot question, who opposed it because it diverted funds away from other environmental programs, such as cleanup of hazardous waste sites and water-quality monitoring. The proposed budget introduced yesterday by the Democrats adds to those cuts, trimming the governor’s proposed allocation for the Department of Environmental Protection by $57 million.

In his conditional veto, Christie objected to the bill based on “micromanaging’’ where funds should be allocated by specifying certain percentages for various programs.

Ed Potosnak, chairman of the New Jersey Keep It Green Coalition, which lobbied for the ballot question, said if the Legislature overrides the governor, then he cannot divert the money and it would be appropriated for the programs dictated by the implementing legislation.

“We need the override,’’ Potosnak said. “The governor has no intention of using the money for the purpose it was intended. He’s doing everything he can to create a political slush fund.’’

In another environmental dispute between the two branches of government, it appears that the Senate will not act to rescind a much criticized new rule adopted by the DEP that critics say will increase flooding and impair water quality. Most of the state’s environmental community had lobbied lawmakers hard to post the bill, but it is not listed on Monday’s agenda, and looks increasingly unlikely to be done before the summer recess.