JAMES O’NEILL / THE RECORD – The Legislature’s ongoing battle with Governor Christie over how to use dedicated open space preservation funds took another turn Monday as Christie conditionally vetoed a bill that would have prevented him from using the money to cover state parks management in his budget.
Conservation advocates decried the move, saying that taking the money for plug holes in the state budget puts at risk the chance to protect sensitive land in North Jersey and elsewhere that should be preserved.
At stake is about $80 million that is dedicated each year from a corporate business tax to pay for preserving open space and farmland and for historic preservation. Christie earmarked $20 million of that for parks management in his annual state budget, and when the legislature removed it in their budget appropriations bill, Christie used his line item veto power to add it back.
In response, the legislature passed a bill saying the $80 million in open space money each year should be divided up in a very specific way, with 64 percent to the Green Acres open space program, 31 percent to farmland preservation and 5 percent to historic preservation.
In his conditional veto of that bill on Monday, Christie said the Legislature should remove the language that limits how he can spend the money. He also added some money for the state’s Blue Acres program, which is designed to buy out homeowners in flood prone areas.
The Legislature can try to override Christie’s conditional veto, or make the changes he suggests. If they do nothing, the bill is dead and Christie can continue to take $20 million from open space to help run the state parks.
“This is a bad day for conservation,” said Edward Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “It was shocking to see Christie take the money in the first place, and now his conditional veto opens the door for more of the same.”
Traditionally, the state paid for open space preservation through periodic bond referendums. But to ensure a more stable stream of funding, conservationists proposed a constitutional amendment that dedicates about $80 million a year from the corporate business tax for open space. Voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment in 2014.
Christie’s decision to use $20 million for parks management “definitely stands in stark contrast to the will of the voters,” Potosnak said.
In his veto message, Christie complains that the bill contains “needless micromanagement of dedicated funds in ways that the Constitution does not require,” which ends up “inhibiting much-needed flexibility reflected in the constitutional amendment itself.” He says the bill not only micromanages the use of the money, but “attempts to prevent the use of this money to maintain and preserve parks within our State, which the constitutional amendment clearly contemplates.”
Christie also lambasted the Legislature for failing to include a specific amount in the bill for the Blue Acres program. “It is unacceptable to allocate nothing for Blue Acres given the devastating flooding recently endured by our State’s residents, and our enormous efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to prevent this flooding from happening again.”
Potosnak said Christie was being disingenuous in mentioning the Blue Acres funding. “He should know that Green Acres money can be used for Blue Acres, and that there’s money still left from a prior bond act and Sandy funds for Blue Acres,” he said.
The Green Acres open space program has in the past helped pay for a wide array of ballfields and parkland throughout North Jersey, from parts of Celery Farm in Allendale and Saddle River County Park in Fair Lawn to the Hackensack River County Park in Hackensack and Van Saun County Park in Ridgewood.