Voters want environmental settlement funds to be spent on improving natural resources, rather than seeing them disappear into the state budget’s general fund, according to early results in Tuesday’s election.

With about 30 percent of the votes in, the ballot question on a constitutional amendment to restrict how the money can be spent was passing 349,738 to 164,583.

If ultimately passed, it requires money generated by lawsuits against polluters to be spent to “repair, restore, replace, or preserve the State’s natural resources.”

They can also be used to “pay legal or other costs incurred by the State in pursuing its claims.”

Environmental groups pressed for passage of the amendment, saying Gov. Chris Christie had forced language into legislation that allowed just $50 million of any settlement to go toward environmental issues. The remainder went into the general fund.

But some taxpayer advocacy groups, such as the local Liberty and Prosperity, argued the special fund can be abused.

Hundreds of millions of dollars per year are at stake.

In just a month, the state reached draft settlements with Shell, BP America and Sunoco oil companies worth a total of $200 million, according to information on the Department of Environmental Protection’s website.

The settlement is for contaminating state waters with a gasoline additive.

Last year, the governor agreed to settle a long-running wetlands-contamination lawsuit against ExxonMobil for $225 million, a tiny amount of the $8.9 billion the state had requested. Christie planned to dedicate only $50 million of that to restoration projects.

A lawsuit has prevented the settlement from being finalized.

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In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.