Eleventh-Hour Compromise Could Free Up Open-Space Funds

A last-minute compromise yesterday resolved an impasse on how to spend up to $146 million for open-space preservation, with the Legislature approving a slightly modified version of a bill initially conditionally vetoed by the governor.

The agreement reached late in the afternoon of a marathon legislative session averts prolonging a dispute between the governor’s office and lawmakers that had held up projects to protect farmland, historic structures, and undeveloped land -- as well as to enhance existing parks.

The legislation (S-2456) won approval in both houses without debate, in contrast to the acrimony the issue had previously raised. It now heads to the governor’s desk where Christie has signaled his willingness to go along with the compromise, a step that also avoids a possible override vote by the Legislature.

The new bill provides a framework for how money taken from the state’s corporate business taxes will be used to fund a range of conservation projects, including buyouts of flood-prone properties in the state. That issue was a concern mentioned by Gov. Chris Christie, lawmakers, and some environmentalists.

By ending the months-long stalemate, towns, counties, and nonprofit groups will obtain the funding for preservation projects for the first time since voters approved a constitutional amendment in a statewide ballot question in 2014.

For proponents of the issue, the bill marks a victory, since it would not use proceeds from the corporate business taxes to pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks, as was done in the current fiscal year, which ends Thursday. Christie hadproposed diverting nearly $20 million in open-space funds again in his budget submitted to the Legislature earlier this year.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature has proposed its own diversion to pay for park salaries and maintenance, siphoning off $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund. That tactic was tried, too, last June, but the money was line-item vetoed by the governor.

In a statement issued after the vote, Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor of both preservation bills, said the compromise will implement the intended goals of the amendment voters approved in 2014.

“It will also ensure that open-space funds are not used for administrative costs like salaries, and will dedicate 4 percent to the Blue Acres program,’’ Smith said. The 4 percent allocation amounts to roughly $2.6 million.

Ed Potosnak, chairman of the New Jersey Keep It Green coalition, representing more than 100 conservation, park, and recreational organizations backing the bill, lauded the compromise.

“It really upholds the will of the voters,’’ he said. “It will pay for preservation programs.’’

With the continuing impasse over how to spend the money, many of those preservation programs have run out of funds to preserve agricultural land and historic buildings, according to proponents of the bill.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said it is a positive that money from the constitutional amendment will be freed up to be spent, but the compromise leaves many issues still to be worked out. They include possible plans to privatize some operations at the state Department of Environmental Protection and the agency’s long-term funding needs.


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