Dedicated funding for New Jersey’s open space program may have lost a battle Monday, but the state Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday there still is enough money in the program to fund projects for another year.
This funding is only a reprieve while lawmakers continue to debate a dedicated source of funding for the Green Acres program, which has helped preserve 660,000 acres in New Jersey since its inception in 1961.
DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said Tuesday that about $100 million has been cobbled together from various sources, including from projects that were never done, pollution settlements and from left over Green Acres funds. He declined to provide a more detailed breakdown of where the money was coming from, saying more information would be released later this year.
The state spends an average of $200 million per year through the open space programs, said Tom Gilbert, chairman of NJ Keep It Green, an open space advocacy group.
That money traditionally has come through bond sales, the last of which was approved in 2009 to raise $400 million. Ragonese said all of that money now has been spent.
During a special session Monday, the state Senate approved a bill to amend the state’s constitution to dedicate as much as $200 million of sales tax revenue to fund open space programs. However, the Senate needed a super majority to set the stage for the measure to appear on November’s ballot. Monday’s result was two votes shy of that super majority.
In order to amend New Jersey’s constitution, both houses of the Legislature must pass a bill by a super majority for the measure to appear on the ballot that same year, or pass both houses twice in two years to appear on the ballot the following year. The Senate passed a similar, less restrictive proposal in June by a super majority.
Monday’s vote in the Senate means that amendment will not head to voters in November, even if the state Assembly were to pass the bill by a super majority.
Finding a source of funding for open space programs has been a political point of contention for years, with Gov. Chris Christie campaigning on the issue in 2009.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, said Christie promised in his 2009 campaign to find a stable source of funding. “To the best of my knowledge, the administration has not come up with their idea of what that should be,” he said.
In January, DEP commissioner Bob Martin, after speaking at an event announcing the state’s largest land acquisition ever — the 5,000 acre Lenape Farms site in Estell Manor — said the agency had submitted several proposals to Christie’s office, but could not elaborate on what those plans were.
Meanwhile, Christie and Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, a co-sponsor of the bill, are trading barbs on the issue. Smith accused Christie of calling Republican senators over the weekend and “threatening their political lives” if they voted for the bill. Christie did not answer questions Tuesday asking whether he pressured lawmakers, instead saying “every time Bob Smith fails, he looks for someone else to blame.”
Several Republicans who had backed a similar resolution in June switched their votes, and several other senators could not attend Monday’s special session, where voting remained open for nearly 12 hours.
While there has been strong voter support over the years for the programs, there has never been a regular source of funding for the program. That is why a solution to amend the state’s constitution so that a portion of the state’s sales-tax revenue is allocated to open space funding has gained bipartisan support in both houses of the Legislature.
Opponents of the bill say that taking $200 million out of sales-tax revenue out of an already-strapped budget means other important programs will not be funded.
Acquisitions through the program can be turned into parks, ballfields, nature preserves and other public property.
Ventnor used open space dollars to help pay for rebuilding the city’s fishing pier in 2007, said Mayor Mike Bagnell, who also said the city still has yet to receive the money from the state because of an issue with another acquisition.
But some municipalities and counties, including Cape May, don’t use Green Acres funding because of the red tape involved.
“If we decided to do some activity on the land, then we’d have to go through the state DEP,” Freeholder Director Jerry Thornton said.
Once Green Acres money is accepted, the criteria is extended to other open space the county acquires on its own. Since 1989, the county has had its own program to purchase open space and preserve farmland and has pumped about $25 million into the program.
Thornton said Cape May County freeholders passed a resolution supporting a stable source of funding even though the county doesn’t apply for the money.
“Our position is it should be open to nonprofits and municipalities for their use because they don’t have an open space program like we do,” Thornton said. “It really is a good program. Open space is important in Cape May County and throughout New Jersey.
Gilbert said the long-term future seems grim without any funding beyond what’s left in the bank.
“If they’re able to cobble together $100 million, that would be about half of what they annually spend,” Gilbert said. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s the last gasp of these programs.”
Staff writer Richard Degener and The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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