N.J. open-space funding wins vote yet falls short

Posted: July 31, 2013

TRENTON - A proposed ballot question on allocating up to $200 million a year in sales-tax revenue for land conservation won narrow approval in the Senate on Monday after an unusual decision by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) to permit voting on the measure throughout the day.

The bill, approved by 22-8, would ask voters whether to amend the state constitution to permit using sales-tax proceeds for open-space preservation.

But because it won only by a simple majority of the 40-member body, the bill must be passed again next year, and twice by the Assembly, before it could be placed on the ballot. Had the bill won the support of three-fifths of the Senate and then been passed similarly in the Assembly, it would have appeared on the November ballot.

A similar measure passed the Senate on June 20 by a huge margin, 36-2, attracting Republican and Democratic support. But it struggled Monday, a victim apparently of summer travel plans of some Democrats and apparent Republican unwillingness to spend on the program.

The measure reportedly engendered strong opposition from Gov. Christie's office, and several Republicans who had voted for the similar bill in June voted against this one Monday.

"Shame on the Republicans who switched their votes today," Sweeney said at a news conference Monday night in the Senate chambers. He said Republicans had changed their votes "for political purposes, which I don't understand."

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

But Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) said staff from the governor's office had called to voice objections to the bill, arguing it would complicate Christie's efforts to balance the budget.

In a highly unusual move, Sweeney began the vote Monday morning and permitted members to vote throughout the day. Just before 5 p.m., the final vote needed for passage was cast by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen). Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who had just returned from a trip to Hong Kong, voted for the measure just before Allen.

Spending to preserve open space in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, has proven highly popular in the past. But the traditional source of funding, state bonds, which must be approved by voters, has begun to fall out of favor as New Jersey wrestles with persistent budget problems and the ongoing fiscal fallout from the recession.

The last open-space bond issue - for $400 million - was approved in 2009 and is still funding land acquisition. Some environmentalists and members of the Legislature have been arguing for a more stable source of revenue for the program, and urged that the sales tax be tapped for that purpose.

Not all environmentalists backed the measure. The New Jersey Sierra Club and the New Jersey Environmental Federation urged finding an alternative funding source. Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club, has said the concern over use of sales-tax revenue centered on the likelihood that it would create budget pressures on other needed programs that might be cut as a result.

The Assembly has not voted on the measure. Before Monday's Senate session, a spokesman said the Assembly Democratic leadership would wait to see what the Senate did with the bill before deciding whether to act.

Monday's vote total means passing the bill is "going to take longer," Sweeney said, "but we're committed to getting it done."

Contact Chris Mondics at 215- 854- 5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com

Staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.

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