Sales tax approach to fund open space preservation debated

TRENTON – The Senate Environment and Energy Committee held a hearing Thursday to help provide funding for open space preservation.

SCR138 would amend the state Constitution to dedicate, for 30 years, one-fifth of a cent for each dollar subject to sales tax for preservation of open space, including flood prone areas and lands that protect water supplies, farmland, and historic properties. The measure could end up on the November ballot for voter approval.

The $400 million from the last bond issue four years ago is gone, Chair Sen. Bob Smith said. “The good news,” Smith said of this new approach, “Is that it solves the issue for 30 years’’ and is more of a pay as you go approach.

In a fiscal analysis, the Office of Legislative Services estimates that based on an average annual growth rate of 4.7 percent for the sales and use tax, the state could experience a cumulative net revenue loss of approximately $866 million to the General Fund and a net revenue gain of the same amount to the Preserve New Jersey Trust Fund Account in the first three fiscal years.

The OLS also projected that for the entire 30 years, the state general fund could lose $17 billion.

Various environmental, cultural and historical advocacy groups including Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association and Highlands Coalition supported the measure.

But some environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and N.J. Environmental Federation expressed concerns including unknown consequences related to holes in this year’s and possibly next year’s budgets and heavy amounts of money needed for infrastructure improvements.

The NJ Conservation Foundation, however, stressed that sustainable funding is needed for preservation programs in the coming years and this approach may be the most viable option.

Committee member Sen. Christopher Bateman said this approach is gaining momentum among his GOP colleagues.