Open space funding debated during budget review

TRENTON — The debate over how to divide tax revenues dedicated for open space, farmland and historic preservation persisted Monday as lawmakers continued to review Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed state budget.

In November, voters approved a constitutional amendment dedicating a 4 percent share of corporate business tax revenue to the three preservation programs, but dividing the expected $80 million in revenues has proved tricky, as the money is considerably less than what the state awarded under previous bond measures.

Complicating the issue is the need to provide money for state park capital improvements and other environmental programs that previously were funded with a share of the business tax revenues.

Testifying before the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said two of the environmental programs — water monitoring and hazardous site cleanups — were in danger of being “gutted” by the diversion of tax revenues to preservation programs.

Another $15 million of the business tax revenue previously was used to fund capital improvement projects at state parks.

In order to preserve those programs, Martin said the administration’s proposed budget steers $20 million of the dedicated revenues to the DEP to help pay for salaries and maintenance at state parks, forests, wildlife areas and historic sites, which traditionally have been funded with revenues in the state’s general funds.

Another $14 million of the dedicated revenues will be reserved for capital improvements at state parks, forests and historic sites, and the remaining $46 million will be divided among open space, farmland and historic preservation in the same manner that the state previously split bond money for those programs.

Under the formula, the state Green Acres open space acquisition program will receive $27.9 million, farmland preservation will get $16.9 million and historic preservation will receive $1.4 million.

Martin said steering $20 million of the dedicated revenues to the DEP for so-called “stewardship” of state parks would spare the water monitoring and cleanup programs.

“Under the proposed budget, we can continue publicly funding cleanups, keep our commitment to clean water, while also funding open space, farmland and historic preservation,” he said. “I believe this is fiscally responsible and consistent with the language in the amendment.”

Some budget committee lawmakers weren’t so sure and argued that some residents who voted in favor of the constitutional amendment may have expected more of the dedicated revenue to go to preservation rather than for “stewardship” of state parks and wildlife areas.

“That’s sort of almost like a bait and switch I would think for some individuals who were expecting that additional resources would go to various (preservation programs),” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra.

“Do you have some specific guidelines or parameters that you feel stewardship should encompass?” asked Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-29th, of Newark.

“Anything that deals with maintaining, operating, taking care of, keeping clean any of the public lands — that’s what I believe is under stewardship,” Martin said in response, adding that the constitutional amendment was forcing the administration to move money in order to maintain other crucial environmental programs, such as publicly funded hazardous site cleanups.

“That would have killed that program essentially or crippled it dramatically,” Martin said.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-3rd of Paulsboro, asked if the $1.4 million in funding was enough to keep the program running.

Martin said the Department of Community Affairs oversees administration of that program, but that the same formula used to share previous preservation bonds was used to divide the $46 million in preservation funding.

“Every one of these groups and constituencies would love to have more money. We would love to have more money. It’s just what it is and the reality of the budget,” he said.

He said the tax dedication will grow to 6 percent of the business tax revenues in fiscal year 2020.

“We expect these numbers to grow over time,” Martin said.

New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel was critical of using dedicated funds for staff salaries.

“The voters did not support this money to be used to fund staff. It’s supposed to be used for open space,” Tittel said in a statement. “They will not increase funding to pay for open space, so all they are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The allocations are still not written into law, and legislators are considering competing bills that divide the tax money differently than what Christie proposed.

The Legislature also could propose a budget that changes how the funding is divided.

A balanced budget must be in place by July 1.

 

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