Trenton lawmakers fumbled away a chance on Monday to fundamentally improve the way the state funds open-space preservation.

New Jersey has previously asked voters every few years to approve millions of dollars in bond referendums for its Green Acres, Blue Acres and farmland- and historic-preservation programs. Voters have approved 13 such measures since 1961 - recognizing that open-space preservation is probably the most effective use of environmental protection money. But each bond referendum adds to the state's staggering debt load.

This new plan seemed fair and sensible. Instead of borrowing, the proposal would ask voters to amend the state constitution to dedicate one-fifth of one cent of the seven-cent sales tax, up to $200 million a year, for open space preservation. It is certainly a question worth putting to voters.

But the vote to authorize a ballot question in November fell short. And there's plenty of blame to go around.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, used uncommon techniques that included leaving voting open all day. But in the end he rustled up only 20 Democratic votes.

Even though two Republicans crossed party lines to support the plan, the 22 votes fell short of the 24 that Democrats needed to get the question on the ballot this fall. Two vacationing Democratic lawmakers who would have put the measure over the top skipped the vote when they were told the Assembly wasn't going to bring it up in time to meet the deadline for getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

But Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, said she had intended to call a voting session this week, a move made moot by the Senate vote. Apparently the phone lines between Democrats in the Senate and Assembly are down.

After this blew up in their faces, frustrated Democrats muttered that Republican Gov. Chris Christie had leaned on GOP lawmakers to make sure they didn't support the measure. And in fact, Republican senators who had supported a similar, more expensive bill in June - which died in the Assembly - changed their votes, apparently for political reasons.

The upshot is that state lawmakers - who seem to have a tough time shooting straight - still managed to hit themselves in the foot. And this time they did some collateral damage to open space in New Jersey.

And those six Republican and four Democratic senators who couldn't cut short their vacations to even show up and vote?

Let's all hope they're stuck in traffic.


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