Senate will vote on open-space revenue bill

Posted: July 28, 2013

The New Jersey Senate will return Monday for a last-minute vote on a ballot question to pay for open-space preservation with sales-tax revenue, although it's not clear whether the measure will pass the Legislature in time to go before voters in November.

The bill would amend the state constitution to dedicate $200 million of existing sales-tax revenue each year for 30 years for open-space preservation.

The amendment will "create a constant stream of funding" for preservation efforts, said Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), one of the bill's sponsors.

"We cannot let another year pass by without ensuring funding to protect New Jersey's open spaces," Smith said in a statement Friday.

For the plan to go on the November ballot, the Assembly must also vote on it next week. A constitutional amendment must be published three months before an election - in this case, by Aug. 5.

No Assembly vote is scheduled. A spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, Tom Hester, said the Assembly "will monitor Monday's Senate vote and plan accordingly."

Both the Senate and Assembly would have to approve the plan by a three-fifths majority for it to go on the ballot. A similar proposal passed the Senate this year, 36-2.

Supporters of the plan cheered the Senate's decision to schedule the vote.

"The Senate continues to demonstrate tremendous leadership on this issue," Tom Gilbert, chairman of the New Jersey Keep It Green Coalition, said in a statement. "We strongly urge the Assembly to follow suit without further delay and give New Jersey citizens the chance to vote this November in favor of dedicated funding to protect open space, water supplies and flood-prone areas, farmland, and historic sites throughout the state."

Other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and New Jersey Environmental Federation, have spoken against the plan, arguing that devoting existing revenues to open space will lead the state to cut other programs, and instead proposing a new water tax.

They also argue that there should not be a rush to put the plan on the ballot, since its provisions wouldn't even start until fiscal year 2015.

Proponents counter that municipalities need to know the state will have money or they won't pursue preservation projects.

In past years, the state has paid for open space through bond referendums. The Green Acres Program, which awards grants for open-space purchases, has appropriated the $400 million approved in 2009.

But the program will have money to award this year from projects approved by the state that never moved forward, said Bob Considine, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection.

How much is undetermined, but "it will be a fairly significant amount," Considine said. The department hopes to announce funding within the coming months, he said.

The open-space bill is the only item Monday on the Senate's agenda, which was posted Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union) criticized Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) for not posting more bills for a vote, including numerous Republican bills.

A request for comment from Sweeney was not returned by Friday evening.


Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @maddiehanna.

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