When the state is broke, and raising taxes is political anathema, politicians will scrounge anywhere to find the money to pay for the legislation they pass.
The latest attempt at creative revenue-raising comes from Assemblymen James Holzapfel and David Wolfe, both R-Ocean, Monmouth, who have introduced a bill that would set up the "Save Barnegat Bay Fund." The fund would provide money for a sound and much-needed $110 million plan to preserve the bay. That plan, recently passed by the Legislature, includes more stringent fertilizer rules, storm-drain upgrades to stop pollution and boating restrictions.
The way Holzapfel and Wolfe propose to come up with part of that money is by taking $1 from the sale of every beach badge sold in the state.
The connection between the bay's problems and beachgoers is tenuous, at best. Sure, Barnegat Bay is a part of the state's tourism economy - but most of the problems have been caused by runoff from mainland communities. And Holzapfel and Wolfe aren't proposing to raise beach fees by $1 per badge- which would be wildly unpopular. Instead, they are prohibiting towns from raising their beach fees to cover that cost, essentially requiring that beach towns swallow the $1 per tag.
No matter how you look at it, that amounts to an indirect property-tax hit on resort towns with beach fees. By law, towns are required to raise no more money from beach fees than the cost of providing beach-related services, such as lifeguards and beach cleaning.
Not surprisingly, beach towns are starting to protest. Cape May became the latest town last week to formally oppose the legislation. City Manager Bruce MacLeod said Cape May would lose about $200,000 under the bill - about 10 percent of its beach revenue. Sea Isle City Mayor Len Desiderio said his town would lose $95,000.
"There has to be a better way," said Desiderio, "especially in these tough economic times when every municipality is pinching."
He's right. Municipalities are hurting and are already hard-pressed to come in under a 2 percent property-tax cap next year.
The bill introduced by Holzapfel and Wolfe would also raise money by dedicating a portion of the sales tax on lawn fertilizer to the Save Barnegat Bay Fund, as well as from sales of special license plates and donations from boaters when they obtain safety certification. Those measures make more sense, although the loss to the state of sales-tax revenue will still need to be made up somehow.
Barnegat Bay is a statewide gem. The state needs to come up with the money to fund the plan. But the cost of saving the bay should be shared statewide, not just raised from a select group of towns that had little to do with the bay's problems in the first place.