N.J. open space advocates: Vote 'yes' on constitutional amendment

New Jersey voters should support a constitutional amendment that would allocate millions of dollars in corporate taxes for preserving open space, a bipartisan coalition pushing the plan said today.

The coalition kicked off its “Yes on 2” campaign at the Greater Newark Conservancy’s Prudential Outdoor Learning Center, arguing that the amendment would create a stable source of funding for the open space program.

public question on the Nov. 4 ballot would amend the state constitution to guarantee that a percentage of corporate business tax would be earmarked for purchasing open tracts and preserving farmland and historic properties.

"We need to let people know what's at stake – clean air and clean water," said Ed Potosnak, the executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

For the first five years the program would set aside 4 percent of the corporate tax, or $71 million annually. The amount would increase to 6 percent, or $117 million, thereafter.

“I’m encouraging all New Jersey voters to come out and vote yes on question two in November,” said state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R- Somerset, Hunterdon, Mercer and Middlesex. “We’re only halfway there.”

The money would come entirely from existing taxes, say both Republicans and Democrats. Spending for other environmental programs, like underground storage tank removals, would be whittled back to free up the money, they said.

“It’s not new money – it’s existing money,” said Bateman.

There are opponents. Mike Proto of Americans for Prosperity said the additional guaranteed open space funding would only succeed in further damaging the state’s finances, he said. 

“We fought this issue in the legislature for quite some time,” said Proto. “It’s fiscally reckless to embed this in the constitution. They’re tying the hand of future legislatures.”

Advocates say the proposed annual tax would fall far short of the $200 million annually that was earmarked from 1998 until 2007 under the Garden State Preservation Trust. But they also acknowledge the new request could be a hard sell to those who oppose government spending.

“Low turnout and protest votes against spending – those could be the problems,” said Jeff Tittel, the director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter. “We need to tell people that without open space money, the bulldozers win. The future loses.”

New Jersey voters have historically supported open space measures. All 13 of the ballot proposals that have reached a vote since 1961 have been approved, most recently the $400 million bonding question approved in 2009 – which was spent by 2012.

This time around, say advocates, establishing a stable source of funding from a constitutional amendment would bring stability to the program.

The uncertainty of borrowing to pay for projects could be a thing of the past, said Tom Gilbert, the chairman of the NJ Keep it Green Coalition of environmental groups and legislators, which is spearheading the campaign.

“It’s about making sure that funds keep the Garden in the Garden State for our children and grandchildren,” Gilbert said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said in a recent study that 650,000 additional acres of open land need to be preserved, along with 350,000 acres of agricultural land.

http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2014/09/nj_open_space_advocates_to_push_for_constitutional_amendment_from_both_sides_of_aisle.html

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