A powerful Democrat is moving ahead with a plan to ask New Jersey voters this November to approve long-term funding for open space preservation, but there's no consensus yet on how to pay for it.

Dino Flammia, Townsquare Media

The Senate Environmental Committee held a hearing Monday to discuss three funding options being considered now that $400 million in land preservation bonds voters approved in 2009 have been spent. The options are imposing a water-user fee that would cost the average residential water customer about $36 a year, setting aside $200 million a year from sales tax revenue that's already being collected, or replenishing the fund once again through borrowing.

The committee chairman, Sen. Bob Smith of Middlesex County, said he's committed to putting one alternative before voters in November, in part because of the urgent need to buy back flood-prone lands from homeowners after Superstorm Sandy and preserve them as wetlands. Now that he's heard from business and environmental leaders, Smith said he would seek additional input from the public before advancing one plan over the other two.

"I don't think it's legitimate unless you ask the citizens of New Jersey to concur," Smith said. "All three of those mechanisms would go on the New Jersey ballot and would not take effect until the citizens of New Jersey said yes."

Proponents would need a three-fifths vote from both houses of the Legislature to get an open space preservation measure on the ballot this year.

Smith said there are merits and drawbacks to each option. The water-use fee and sales tax dedication both provide long-term, pay-as-you-go funding, but the first imposes another fee on overtaxed residents and businesses and would produce $50 million less than the other options as proposed. Setting aside a small percentage of the sales tax could shortchange other environmental programs, like clean energy and violations enforcement, because it would deplete the general fund. A $400 million bond issue would provide stop-gap open space funding for two years, the kind of fits-and-starts funding that doesn't allow long-term planning or strategic real estate investments.

Smith said there's been no guidance from Republican Gov. Chris Christie's administration so far, but Sen. Kip Bateman, a Republican, indicated that Christie may address the issue during his budget message this month.

The governor's office didn't immediately respond to an email requesting comment Monday.

Though environmental concerns typically poll below fiscal issues in public opinion surveys, Smith said he hopes open space preservation becomes an issue in the governor's race, which is likely to pit Christie against Sen. Barbara Buono of Metuchen.

"I'd like both gubernatorial candidates to be asked, 'How do you feel about open space and how do you plan to fund it?" said Smith, who has endorsed fellow Democrat Buono.

Even within the environmental community, there is dissent over how to fund open space preservation. The Keep It Green coalition of environmental groups favors dedicating 2.5 percent of sales tax revenue to open space purchases and stewardship of lands after they are bought, while the Sierra Club prefers imposing a surcharge of about 40 cents per 1,000 gallons of water use.

"Of the options being considered, dedicating $200 million annually in sales tax revenues for 30 years would most closely meet NJ Keep It Green's goals and provide the annual level of funding that is needed on a long-term basis to address critical needs," spokeswoman Kelly Mooij said. "The legislation, however, should be amended to dedicate between 10 and 20 percent of the funds to stewardship. When you buy a house, you have to invest to maintain it. The same concept applies to our parks, lands and historic sites."

The Sierra Club prefers a water-use surcharge. Spokesman Jeff Tittel said the state can't afford more borrowing. He said the sales tax levy has been decreasing so money that funds other environmental programs could be diverted to help pay for transportation projects.


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