The people of New Jersey will vote November 4 on a constitutional amendment that would dedicate existing tax revenue every year for open space preservation. As a legislative sponsors of this amendment, I urge the passage of this important measure.
Since 1961, the people of New Jersey have approved 13 bond acts and two constitutional amendments that provided funding for open space in all 21 counties. Playgrounds and ballfields have been built in our towns and cities. Flood prone properties have been purchased. Historic churches have been preserved. Liberty State Park has risen out of the urban wasteland to become the second most visited state park in the nation. Water reservoirs have been turned into state parks, thus protecting our drinking water while preserving recreation areas. Small family farms that make this state the Garden State have been preserved, and the list goes on. Open space preservation is a great New Jersey success story.
And yet, we are the most densely populated state in the nation and our remaining open space is under immense development pressure. There remains much work to be done.
This constitutional amendment is the first chapter in a new environmental success story. Passing this measure is critical to replenishing the open space fund and to protecting land from being developed. The amount that would be dedicated will vary based on the amount of tax collected each year, but we estimate the measure would provide $71 million for the first four years and $117 million each year thereafter. This is significantly less than the State spent on open space during the first decade of this century, when Governor Whitman’s earlier constitutional dedication made over $200 million available each year for ten years.
The proposed dedication is far less than is actually needed, as this initiative would fund State parks and forests, local government parks, buyouts of flood prone properties, farmland preservation, and historic preservation. That $71 million would be spread pretty thin across all of these worthy programs. But it is a stable, predictable amount of money that is vital to ensuring that agencies know what they have to negotiate with in land purchase negotiations.
This measure would not raise any new revenue. Instead, it would repurpose some of the money that is dedicated for other environmental purposes. New Jersey has dedicated corporate tax revenue money for environmental purposes since the 1990s. The current constitutional dedication for 2016 will provide about $32 million for park development. We are proposing to increase that amount an additional $39 million — to $71 million — and to broaden the purposes to include open space acquisition, farmland preservation, and historic preservation. Starting in 2020, we would increase the overall environmental dedication by roughly $50 million and use that money to increase the amount going to most of the environmental purposes.
There are those who argue this initiative would take money from other environmental programs in the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). This is not true. Funding for the DEP happens in the annual appropriations act that we pass in June. There is nothing that says that the Governor, when he is putting together his $34 billion State budget, must take the additional $39 million for open space out of the DEP’s operating budget. This additional dedication would represent about one-tenth of one percent of the annual state budget.
I believe that the Governor would continue to fund the DEP at the current levels, even though the Constitution would no longer tie his hands. No other state agency has a large proportion of its operating budget constitutionally dedicated. A good comparison is the Department of Transportation. There is a constitutional dedication for actual transportation construction projects, but there is no constitutional dedication for the salaries of DOT employees.
This open space amendment is common sense legislation. It preserves dedicated funding, at somewhat lower levels, for the other ongoing environmental purposes. And perhaps most importantly, this initiative is strictly “pay as you go” – it specifically prohibits any open space funds from being used to pay off debt, so there will be no bonding based on this money. I will help tighten the belt and preserve what we can afford to preserve without relying on our children to pay the bill.
So I ask for your support on this Ballot Question #2. It is not perfect, but it will provide necessary funding for a very important program that keeps the “garden” in the Garden State.
Senator Bob Smith (D-17)
216 Stelton Rd.
Piscataway, NJ 08854