Environmental group, farming advocates up in arms about Christie open space diversion

When New Jersey voters went to the polls two years ago and overwhelmingly voted in favor of dedicating a share of corporate business taxes for open space, farmland and historic preservation, advocates cheered the outcome as finally providing long-sought-after dedicated funding for those preservation programs.

But now some environmental and farming advocates are crying foul, as a large chunk of the dedicated $80 million in revenues generated from the tax have been diverted to state parks maintenance, with the remainder in limbo due to a dispute over how they should be divided. 

At issue is Gov. Chris Christie's proposed 2017 fiscal year budget, which once again calls for about $33 million in dedicated open space funds to be used for capital projects and maintenance in state parks. The budget proposes using about $13 million for state park projects and another approximately $20 million for parks maintenance, including salaries for park managers.

The administration claims the diversion is legal and necessary because state parks were previously funded with monies from a share of corporate business tax.

In 2014, voters rededicated that share to open space, farmland and historic preservation, but the amendment also permitted funding to also go for stewardship of preserved lands.

The tax is expected to generate around $80 million during the current fiscal year. Christie's proposed budget for the current 2016 fiscal year devoted $33 million of the revenue for state parks, leaving around $47 million for the three preservation programs.

Democratic lawmakers disagreed with using the open space money for state parks maintenance and passed their own budget specifying that the $20 million should come from the state's Clean Energy Fund.

Lawmakers also eliminated Christie's language for divvying up the remaining funds because they were writing separate legislation for that purpose.

Christie vetoed both the budget language and the separate open space appropriations bill, which effectively froze all the open space funds, save for the $33 million directed for state parks.

Christie's proposed budget for the upcoming 2017 fiscal year again calls for $33 million to go to state parks, angering farmers and environmental groups who believe the diversion leaves only a small sum for actual land preservation.

Some advocates also question the legality of Christie's diversion of $20 million to state parks maintenance.

His line item veto of the budget language directing the funding to come from the Clean Energy Fund specified it was made to "preserve the original intent" of his own budget, which directed the funds to come from the open space dedication. However, an analysis from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, questioned whether Christie was authorized to move the money from the open space dedication without specific budget language authorizing him to do so.

"In the absence of specific language provision ... appropriating from corporation business tax revenues constitutionally dedicated for open space preservation, it is the opinion of Legislative counsel that there is no authorization for the governor to expend funds for parks management from the constitutionally dedicated corporation business tax revenues," OLS said in a December memo to Sen. Bob Smith, D-17th of Piscataway, who had requested the analysis.

Pointing to the OLS analysis, the New Jersey Sierra Club said Monday it would consider suing the administration if it follows through with its plan to divert the tax revenues from open space, farmland and historic preservation to pay salaries for state parks employees and managers.

"We believe what Christie is doing is unconstitutional and unconscionable. He's taking money that's supposed to be going to open space and using it to fill a hole in his budget," Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel said Monday during a conference call.

"We may end up going to court to stop it," he added.

Joseph Perone, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Treasury, countered that using the funds for state parks was both "permissible" and "consistent."

"This was a completely permissible use of these funds that also is consistent with the constitutional amendment approved by a majority of voters," Perone said.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau also took aim at the proposed diversion of dedicated preservation funds on Monday, arguing that it violates the intent of voters and of the $47 million available the plan leaves only about $13.67 million left for farmland preservation.

"Voters approved the 2014 ballot initiative with overwhelming support under the assumption that each of the land preservation programs would enjoy sustainable funding at or close to the typical levels. The proposal put forward by the administration simply does not match that assumption," Ryck Suydam, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said Monday.

In previous years, when the state borrowed large sums for land preservation, around $25 million was typically spent solely to preserve farms. Now it claims no money is available.

"The farmland preservation program — depleted of all of its available funds and devoid of any new appropriations since 2013 — simply cannot remain viable with the $13.67 million allocation proposed," Suydam said.

The state funds are often paired with county and municipal monies to purchase farms, so the lack of available funding hurts those programs also, he said.

Tittel said his group is also concerned about the lack of available funding for the farmland preservation, as well as the state Green Acres program.

"We have preserved a lot of land in New Jersey, but there's a lot more we need to do," he said.

Legislation authored by Smith to divide the dedicated open space money among the three preservation programs was approved by the Senate earlier this month but is still pending in the Assembly. It is identical to the measure vetoed by Christie during the last session, but Smith hopes to approve it again, if only to draw an explanation from the governor about why he opposes it.

Christie's previously blocked the bill with a pocket veto, which requires no explanation.

[Original Article]