Environment Budget Reflects NJ Fiscal Woes
New Jersey's top environmental official said the state's open-space program can limp along for another year with about $100 million from canceled projects and repaid loans but no long-term funding source for land and historic preservation has been established.
Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin appeared before the Assembly Budget Committee for a review of the department's fiscal year 2015 budget Monday. Questions focused on the lack of open-space funding and a proposal to divert money paid by polluters from funds intended to compensate communities for the environmental damage to the general fund.
Martin's budget, and testimony from Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson later in the day, seemed to reflect the state's dire fiscal situation. The Treasury Department confirmed the financial woes with a sobering announcement late Monday that tax collections had come up $600 million short for April and are anticipated to be off by $807 million for the fiscal year ending June 30. Late-year cuts loom to keep the budget in balance, as the state constitution requires.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie's proposed $34.4 billion budget must be approved by the Legislature and signed by him by July 1.
With the open-space fund depleted and no solution agreed upon by Democrats and Republicans, Martin identified $100 million as available for the next 12 months to fund matching Green Acres grants with municipalities and counties.
"It's not meant to be a long-term game plan for open space," he said. "It's meant to be providing money back out to the communities over this next year."
Martin also identified $300 million in federal Superstorm Sandy recovery money that is being directed to buying out homes in areas that repeatedly flood and returning the property to wetlands. Buyouts have started in South River and Sayreville.
Martin rejected a proposal that would redirect money from business tax revenue because that money funds other environmental programs, such as underground storage tank removal and capital improvements at state parks.
Jeff Tittel, director of the state Sierra Club environmental group, sat in on the hearing. He called Christie "the first governor in 60 years without a plan to fund open space" and said this was "the first time since 1989 that we've run out of money."
Martin defended a proposed change in budget language that would allow the state to divert the portion of future pollution settlements exceeding $50 million to the general fund, which some environmentalists fear could result in a windfall for the state at the expense of communities that won't be adequately compensated for environmental losses.
Asked about another proposed diversion of $147 million from settlement money recouped in a Passaic River pollution case, Martin said the transfer to the general fund amounted to the state paying itself back for previously incurred litigation and other costs.
Assemblyman Joe Cryan, D-Union, who sits on the budget panel, said, "I think it's completely wrong to take that money and use it to the general fund to cover a shortfall this year."
Martin goes before the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday.
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