By Briana Vannozzi
Like many questions that end up on the ballot, it’s a contentious road to get there. Funding for open space is no different. The referendum is asking voters to approve or reject dedicating up to $4 billion over the next 30 years to preserve open space.
“It’s different than we’ve done 12 other times where we’ve gone out and borrowed and we’re still paying off debt. This is using money that is already earmarked for the environment so its fiscally conservative from that perspective as you could ever be,” said Bill sponsor Assemblyman John McKeon.
Specifically, that earmarked money mentioned, is from the corporate business tax. Right now four percent is already used for a variety of environmental programs. The proposed amendment to the constitution and a sticking point for critics raises the amount to six percent starting in 2019. It permanently allocates the funds for open space preservation, acquisition and maintenance.
“We’re out of money, there’s virtually nothing left. One of the most successful programs in state history will end by the end of next year if we do not pass this ballot question,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the NJ Sierra Club.
Tittel’s group, the NJ Sierra Club, is part of a coalition of environmental groups urging voters to push “yes” on ballot question two. He says without it, parks and farmland will suffer.
“But also it has a big impact on the environment because as we preserve open space we get to protect our watersheds and our drinking water sources,” said Tittel.
“Sure its sounds positive but at the end of the day its fiscally reckless they all tell us, there’s no money in the budget to solve our pension problem to pay for our roads and to give us a tax break on our property taxes. And yet, we’ll put aside billions of dollars over the course of generations for open space,” said Americans for Prosperity NJ State Director Daryn
That same argument is echoed by opponents around the state. The president of NJ Policy Perspective says he’s in favor of supporting open space, but..
“If they just did the first part of this, let’s change how we use the money that’s already there I wouldn’t oppose it, but instead they had to add this on to increase the drainage of the general fund,” said NJ Policy Perspective President Gordon MacInnes.
“I’ll vote no. I hope other people vote no as well. I hope it gets voted down,” said Gov. Chris Christie.
But, supporters and environmentalists are concerned that without it, the consequences will be far more dire.
“Agriculture is our third largest industry. Sec of Agriculture says we need another 300,000 acres of farm land to be preserved,” said McKeon.
The groups we spoke with today who are opposed to the referendum suggested revenue sources like public private partnerships, or changing the constitution to maintain the purpose of the money, not increasing it. If it passes, the measure will go into effect this July and advocates say the future of New Jersey’s environmental infrastructure will be safe and stable. Those on the other side say, New Jersey’s fiscal hole will just be deeper and more difficult to dig out of.