Open space preservation bill, resolution advance

TRENTON – The Senate Environment and Energy Committee released a bill and a resolution Monday that would dedicate one-fifth of a cent of the sales tax revenues annually for preservation and acquisition for open space, farmland, or historic purposes.

It would generate in excess of $200 million a year, Chair Sen. Bob Smith said. “The pot is empty,’’ he said, and the nation’s most densely populated state needs to find a new method of reliable funding.

The soundest way to do it, he believes, would have been a water users fee, but that proved unpopular.  Bonding for open space also would not prove popular with a majority of voters, he said.

“The state is at a crossroads, we need to make a decision,’’ Smith said.  “At the end of the day we have to get 21, 41, and one,’’ he said in reference to support of majorities in the Senate, Assembly and from the governor.

Supporters include the N.J. Association of Counties, the N.J. Farm Bureau, the Land Conservancy of N.J., the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, and other related organizations.

David Epstein, president of the Land Conservancy, said that because other funding has dried up, this would be particularly helpful in the Highlands. “We really don’t have a way to do what we need to accomplish in the Highlands,’’ he said.

Clinton Mayor and former Highlands council member Janice Kovach backed the measures.

“This funding will continue to ensure’’ that visitors will continue to patronize dining and shopping businesses in her town,” which relies on tourism, she said.

Sen. Jennifer Beck questioned if sales tax revenue were to decline, for instance due to a recession, would the .2 percent figure still apply, to which Smith said it would, but the available revenue would be less.

Jeff Tittel of the N.J. Sierra Club expressed some opposition.

“The biggest concern we have,” he said, is that according to the Office of Legislative Service, the state is facing “a billion dollar shortfall.” 

“We’re also concerned that this current budget, if the sales tax is growing, great, but then why are we raiding affordable housing and environmental funds.”

He said the governor already raids hundreds of millions of dollars from those areas.

He suggested constitutionally dedicating funds already coming into DEP from various purposes, such as leases, for example, which would reduce a reliance on sales tax use.

The money under this bill would come from the general fund as an equivalent amount of the sales tax and it would end up pitting environmental causes against social causes, such as the developmentally disabled in need of group homes, or poorer people in need of affordable housing, he said.

“There are places where we can pull that money so we’re not taking so much from the general fund,’’ he said.

The Senate resolution, SCR138, was released by a vote of 4-1 with Beck in opposition.

Beck pointed out that in line with what Tittel said, in fiscal year 2008 sales tax revenue was $8.3 billion, and by fiscal year 2010 it had dropped to $7.5 billion, a loss of $800 million.

“We should look at our history and contemplate that as we are trying to find the right funding sources,” she said.

The bill S2529 was released by the same vote with Beck in opposition.

The bills:

S2529: This bill, the “Preserve New Jersey Act of 2013,” would implement, upon the approval by the voters of an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution, dedication of sales and use tax revenue for preservation of open space, including flood prone areas, farmland preservation, and historic preservation.

The amount would be .2 percent of the total money taxable under the sales tax. That equates to one fifth of one cent out of the 7 cents now assessed under the sales tax for the next 30 years.

SCR138: Amends Constitution to dedicate funds annually from FY2015 to FY2044 of sales and use tax revenue for preservation of open space, including flood prone areas, farmland preservation, and historic preservation.

The amount would be .2 percent of the total money taxable under the sales tax. That equates to one fifth of one cent out of the 7 cents now assessed under the sales tax.

Open space preservation bill, resolution advance