The Legislature appears to moving toward a consensus on a new funding mechanism for open-space preservation - or at least a consensus that a measure should be put before the voters in November.
Open-space preservation - through Green Acres, Blue Acres and the farmland- and historic-preservation programs - has historically been funded through borrowing approved by voters. New Jersey residents have approved 13 bond referendums for open-space preservation since 1961, never once rejecting the borrowing. But all $400 million from the last bond referendum in 2009 has been allocated.
The coffers are empty. If New Jersey is going to continue to have a thriving open-space preservation program - probably the most effective use of environmental-protection dollars - something must be done. More borrowing is off the table, as it should be considering the state's existing debt load. But the latest proposal has been carefully crafted to reflect the state's shaky finances, and it is certainly something that at least should be put before the voters.
Originally, the plan was to seek a constitutional amendment dedicating $200 million a year in sales-tax revenue to the open-space programs. We hesitated to support that. Every dollar of sales-tax revenue used for open space means fewer dollars for other necessary programs.
But instead, the latest measure would seek voters' approval to dedicate one-fifth of every cent of sales-tax revenue, instead of a flat $200 million a year. That way, if sales-tax revenues decline, open-space funding will be reduced. Seems fair and sensible. (The NJ Keep It Green group, a proponent of the measure, notes that sales-tax revenue grew an average of $206 million a year over the last two years, two pretty bad years for the economy.)
Furthermore, the new funding mechanism would not kick in until fiscal year 2015, ensuring that the plan has no impact on the budget this year or next year. This is an especially smart way to handle what is bound to be a controversial proposal. It provides some built-in breathing room. (Plus, this year, Gov. Chris Christie already has said he plans to spend $300 million in federal Hurricane Sandy aid to buy up flood-prone properties.)
But one change we'd like to see: Require that the money be spent solely on land acquisition. Don't use it to light ball fields, build gazebos or pave bike paths. Those are fine projects. But voters will be more likely to support a program dedicated to the main purpose here - protecting open space from development, pollution and flooding.