Voters in New Jersey will get the chance this fall to approve a constitutional amendment that would establish a new, stable source of funding to provide at least $70 million annually for preservation of open space, farmland and historic structures.
In a rare August session, the Assembly yesterday, on the last possible day for a vote, passed a measure (SCR-84) with enough votes to ensure that the question will be on the ballot this November.
It was a huge victory for a wide coalition of environmental conservation groups, parkland advocates and other organizations that have lobbied for several years for legislation to replenish the state’s existing preservation program, which is virtually broke.
The measure, which needed 48 votes to make the ballot, passed easily in a 58-9-1 vote. There was no debate on the legislation, which didn’t surprise supporters of the initiative.
When Gov. Chris Christie called lawmakers into a special session to deal with bail reform, the Democratic leadership in the Assembly decided to post the open-space question as well.
Initially, the preservation program would get $70 million a year from the state’s corporate business tax revenues, which are already dedicated to other environmental programs. Beginning in 2019, the share taken out for open-space preservation would rise from 4 percent to 6 percent, increasing the amount to at least $117 million annually.
While advocates said it would be foolish to allow the open-space program to lapse, critics of the measure argued the state could ill afford to tap existing revenue to fund the preservation efforts, given New Jersey’s precarious fiscal condition.
“Although open space is an important initiative, our priorities should be putting our state on a firm fiscal footing,’’ said Assemblyman David Rible (R-Monmouth).
With the proposal assured of being on the ballot, the next issue is whether voters will back the measure in a state that seems to bounce from one fiscal crisis to another.
The question goes directly on the ballot without any review by Gov. Chris Christie, who had opposed previously efforts to divert state tax revenue to preserve open space.