Since 1961, more than 1.2 million acres in New Jersey have been preserved through open space funding. But the job of keeping precious land free from development is far from done.
Thanks to a bill approved by the Assembly on Monday, come November voters will have the opportunity to make sure the work goes on. On Election Day, voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment that would provide a permanent funding mechanism for open space programs. Currently, 4 percent of business tax collections — around $100 million a year — is dedicated to various environmental programs.
If the proposed changes are approved by voters, the measure would generate about $70 million a year in the first five years for the preservation of open space, farmland and historic sites. Thereafter, an extra 2 percent of corporate taxes would be dedicated to the program, generating an estimated $117 million annually.
To offset the cost, allocations would be reduced for programs state environmental officials say no longer require the same levels of funding as they once did, such as diesel pollution and underground storage tank programs.
Approving the amendment should be a no-brainer for voters, who have consistently funded open space programs through bond referendums. Public support for open space acquisition has a long, deep history. New Jersey voters have approved statewide land preservation questions by large margins 13 times since 1961. Most recently, voters in 2009 approved a $400 million bond act. That money has been spent. The vote in November will provide a long-overdue opportunity to provide a permanent source of open space funding.
The Assembly vote Monday came at the last possible moment to ensure it got on the ballot this year. New Jersey has exhausted its funding for open space preservation, which means the state would have no more money to devote to keeping farmland and other green spaces away from developers and the inevitable sprawl they create in their wake.
That’s unacceptable in a state as densely populated as New Jersey, especially considering voters have enthusiastically supported preservation for decades. Casting a ballot in favor of the amendment is not a vote for higher taxes, but a reallocation of existing tax money, making it fiscally responsible as well as wise public policy.
While approval of the November constitutional amendment would yield less revenue for open space than the average of $200 million over the past 15 years, New Jersey would rid itself of the ever-present uncertainty about a continued source of funding. It’s also far better than nothing — which is what New Jersey would have been left with if this measure hadn’t been placed on the ballot.
Lawmakers owed it to voters to give New Jerseyans the choice. They deserve thanks for giving them the chance this fall.
via The Asbury Park Press and Daily Record