Sales tax to support preservation efforts heard in committee

TRENTON – The Senate Environment and Energy Committee held a hearing to promote a resolution that would have voters decide whether they want to spend $200 million a year on open space preservation and related causes.

SCR160 would amends the state Constitution to dedicate $200 million annually from FY2015 to FY2044 of sales and use tax revenue for preservation of open space, including flood-prone areas and lands that protect water supplies, farmland, and historic properties.

Some kind of mechanism to preserve open space is needed because the last round of public funds has expired. “There is no more open space money.  It’s gone,’’ said committee Chairman Sen. Bob Smith. The money is needed especially after Superstorm Sandy in order to deal with acquisition of flood-prone properties, he said.

Supporters such as the N.J. Keep It Green coalition say that if this measure fails, decades of preservation efforts will come to a halt. Other environmental groups, including N.J. Environmental Federation and the Sierra Club, expressed reservations about this approach’s overall stability and effectiveness in light of ongoing efforts to expand sprawl development in sensitive areas such as the Highlands and in light of preservation money being raided for the general fund.

This legislation needs to be voted on by August in order for the issue to appear on November’s ballot as a referendum. The Assembly needs to deal with the companion resolution.

While the original sales tax-open space bill, SCR138, passed easily in the Senate by a 36-2 vote, the bill never came up for a vote in the Assembly, as members expressed concern it would add more debt and hurt other programs. The original bill would have used up to $17 billion in sales tax revenue over 30 years. SCR-60 would use up to $6 billion over the 30-year period, given the $200 million annual limit.
However, Gordon MacInnes, president of N.J. Policy Perspective, told the panel today that a constitutional dedication of money is not the right way to go.

He said that it would be better to have legislative budget committees analyze potential consequences first before passing such a measure, and added that even under the reduced amounts in this latest proposal there still would be substantial consequences on the state budget.

“The already thin surplus of $300 million in a $33 billion budget would have been slashed to $100 million,” he said. “Or, the governor and Legislature would have had to agree on what important programs and services would be cut to make up the $200 million difference – at a time when many are still sorely underfunded.”

Smith urged supporters to get their cards and letters going to their lawmakers because the full Legislature will need to come back into session during the summer recess as part of the timetable to get this on the November ballot. They basically have two weeks to accomplish that to meet that Aug. 1 deadline.

Sen. Christopher Bateman acknowledged that it is not a perfect solution, but said it is the best game in town right now.

Sales tax to support preservation efforts heard in committee