By ANGELA DELLI SANTI
Associated Press Writer
January 18, 2009
Gov. Jon Corzine’s nod to open space in his State of the State address could give new life to stalled efforts to direct long-term funding to the purchase of farmland, green acres and historic sites.
At least two bills already in the Legislature address permanent funding for open space, which environmentalists have long advocated and Corzine said he supports, though he has not said where he thinks the money should come from. Several proposals have come and gone since Corzine was elected in 2005, including a plan to dedicate a portion of the sales tax to open space preservation. A new legislative proposal is being drafted.
“It is my preferred approach that we put in place a long-term funding solution,” Corzine said in the State of the State message Tuesday. “That said, we need, at a minimum, an interim bonding question for November’s ballot to extend the financing the votes approved in 2007.”
Voters approved an emergency $200 million bond referendum in 2007, the same year they rejected borrowing for stem cell research and dedicating a portion of the sales tax to property tax relief. The open space money has all been spent. (No statewide open space funding question has failed in New Jersey in a dozen or so requests to voters dating back decades.)
Environmentalists said they are frustrated the question of long-term funding keeps cropping up without being resolved.
“A one-year stopgap doesn’t get the job done, and I’m not even sure it would pass (in this economy),” said David Pringle of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “We shouldn’t be living referendum to referendum.”
Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club said $200 million a year is needed, and that there are many ways to get it: through a modest water-user fee, from the sales tax or gas tax, by taxing those who develop farmland, through a multiyear bond referendum, or by taxing billboards, SUVs or recreation equipment.
The proposal to dedicate a portion of existing sales tax revenue to open space purchases had support from a majority of lawmakers in both political parties, Tittel said, but became a casualty of the caustic budget battle of 2006 that shut down state government. A similar proposal became a political casualty the next year, when Corzine tried to tie permanent funding for open space to a failed plan to pay down state debt by raising tolls.
“This is the first time since 1961 that we are out of money for open space,” Tittel said. The governor should never have allowed us to get into that situation in the first place.”
Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. of Westfield agreed, accusing Corzine, a Democrat seeking re-election in November, of “playing politics with land preservation goals as opposed to finding a real solution that has worked very well for two decades.”
Kean said he continues to support a Senate resolution he and Democratic leader Steve Sweeney co-sponsored dedicating $175 million in existing tax revenue to open space through 2038, if voters approve the idea.
Assemblyman John McKeon, D-South Orange, said he is drafting a bill that would provide $350 million a year to the open space preservation fund by imposing a water use fee that would cost the average household $2 per month. The proposal also would require voter approval.
McKeon, long a champion of open space funding, said failing to replenish the fund would cause economic peril.
For example, if the Highlands watershed region were to be developed rather than preserved, he said the costs of treating and delivering clean, safe tap water to the state would become so astronomical no one could afford to live in the Garden State any longer.
“The bottom line _ it’s unpalatable to do nothing,” he said.