ENVIRONMENT

Christie Vetoes Voter Approved Open Space Funding Amendment

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Two years ago, voters went to the polls and approved a constitutional amendment dedicating 4 percent of the corporate business tax to preserving open space, farmland and historic sites.

Yesterday Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a bill implementing that constitutional amendment. The governor said the way it is written constitutes “needless micromanagement”.

His environmental commissioner agrees.

“When they put that item on the ballot for open space, they cut some money out of some critical programs — water resources programs were for testing water, publicly funded clean-ups cleaning up sites across the state that are contaminated, the management of site remediation — those programs were cut from that money. And the Legislature had indicated there was additional money out there. There was never additional money,” said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin.

The ballot measure was designed to generate about $100 million a year for preservation projects. But this year the governor used $20 million of that on salaries and current maintenance at state parks and diverted the rest into the general fund.

Critics argue that’s what he wants to do next year, as well.

“Right now the governor is sitting on more than $80 million in open space monies. That money was dedicated by the voters to help preserve farmland, for Green Acres, to buy new lands for parks and he’s sitting on it,” said Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club Jeff Tittel.

It’s all about allocating scarce resources. The DEP commissioner says the balance now is about right.

Open space and preservation projects are getting funded through the normal appropriations process, Martin says.

The New Jersey Keep it Green Coalition disagrees.

“Each and every day that this legislation isn’t signed — that we don’t have implementation legislation guiding the allocation of the funds — we’re not getting those important, critical projects done. We’re not building community parks in our urban neighborhoods, we’re not preserving our family farms, we’re not preserving our cultural heritage,” said Kelly Mooij.

“What this constitutional dedication did, it put a lock box on open space funding so that politicians can’t whimsically remove that funding for other projects or programs. Voters said this is really important and we don’t want it to go to other things,” said Ed Potosnak.

The issue is causing some unusual splits in the environmental lobby.

Some are highly critical of the governor, some offer mixed views, some were against this constitutional amendment when it was passed.

“We need the park staff. We need more open space funding. That’s why we’ve always had concerns with this particular solution. It wasn’t solving the problem. It was moving money from one environmental account to another,” said Dave Pringle.

Sen. Kip Bateman, a Republican sponsor of the open space bill, says he’s disappointed in the governor’s veto but doesn’t think an attempt at an override will happen anytime soon.