Preserving open space, or preserving the salaries of state employees?
Some lawmakers say Gov. Chris Christie's administration overrode the intent of New Jersey voters by redirecting $20 million in state funds that could be used to preserve open space and instead used the money to pay public employee salaries.
Conservation-minded New Jerseyans voted in November to amend the state constitution to change the formula long used by Trenton to fund environmental programs, which receive 4 percent of the money collected in corporate taxes.
Of $113 million in environmental funds collected through the tax, almost $80 million will go toward preserving open space generally. But Christie, who opposed the referendum, wants to skim $20 million off that amount to pay salaries for about 300 park workers and use another $14 million for capital projects.
Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said spending on salaries and capital projects was permitted as part of the stewardship of open space. Martin noted that the ballot question OK'd by voters stated the money would be used to "care for open space" and "maintain parks and fish and wildlife areas."
Nonetheless, some say the move reflects a lack of goodwill by Christie.
"It almost seems that the voter who went into the booth without having that advance knowledge, that sort of almost is almost like a bait and switch," said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington.
"I think if you asked the average person on the street who voted for that recently, they would not want the stewardship part to mean routine salaries and that sort of thing," said Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex.
"Park staffing is very important, but it should be funded through the general fund as it has been in the past, leaving the $20 million for preservation projects as the voters intended," said Amy Hansen, policy analyst for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
The maneuver will fund roughly two-thirds of the state's parks budget and support the salaries of around 300 employees. Martin said the change is wholly appropriate.
"At the end of the day, that's how you operate a park," Martin said. "You got managers, you got staff, you got people, you got resources, you've got lawn mowers. You've got it all. And you've got trucks and all the rest of that. How do you operate all those things?"
Last November's ballot question, which was approved by 65 percent of voters, rearranged the programs to which a portion of corporate tax collections apply. Martin said one consequence of the constitutional amendment is that it "gutted several major programs for [the Department of Environmental Protection]" by cutting their dedicated funds and redirecting the proceeds toward open space.
For example, money dedicated for watershed management and monitoring, such as testing water quality in Barnegat Bay and monitoring shellfish waters, streams and aquifers, drops from $16 million under the old formula to $5.6 million in the coming year. The dedication for staffing cleanup of polluted sites overseen by the DEP drops from $9.6 million to zero.
The new budget puts general taxpayer funds toward those items, to make up for the losses. But the DEP isn't getting extra money, so it offsets those increases by cutting general taxpayer support for parks and shifting that cost to the corporate-tax money. That helps balance the DEP's budget, but does so by reducing the money available to buy new fields, farms or historic sites.
"We had to make some tough choices moving this money around to keep ... publicly funded cleanups alive and well. That would have killed that program essentially, crippled it dramatically," Martin said.
The formula through which corporate taxes are applied to environmental programs will change again in July 2019, when the amount of the transfer will also jump to 6 percent of all corporate tax revenue, rather than 4 percent. Not only will the amount of the dedication get larger at the point, a larger share will go toward preservation programs — 78 percent of the money, up from the current 71 percent.
CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT: Do you approve amending the Constitution to dedicate certain State revenues each year for environmental programs?
The Constitution now dedicates four percent of the money collected from the Corporation Business Tax to help pay for some environmental programs. This amendment raises the amount from four percent to six percent beginning on July 1, 2019.
The amendment also changes, beginning July 1, 2015, some of the programs funded by the current dedication. The new dedication would be used mostly to preserve and steward open space, farmland, historic sites, and flood-prone areas. Funds would also be used to improve water quality, remove and clean up underground tanks, and clean up polluted sites. Lastly, the amendment dedicates money received from leases and other uses of State open space lands to pay for open space, farmland, and historic preservation.
INTERPRETIVE STATEMENT: This amendment would ensure stable funding for some of the State's environmental programs.
The Constitution now dedicates four percent of the money collected from the Corporation Business Tax to help pay for some environmental programs. This amendment raises the amount from four percent to six percent beginning on July 1, 2019. It also changes the amounts allocated to some of the programs funded by the existing dedication beginning on July 1, 2015.
The money from the new dedication would be used: (1) to preserve and care for open space (Green Acres), farmland, historic sites, and flood-prone areas (Blue Acres); (2) to improve water quality; (3) to pay for polluted site cleanups; and (4) for underground tank removal and cleanup.
Lastly, the amendment requires that money received from leases and certain other uses of State-owned preserved open space be used to pay for open space, farmland, and historic preservation.
The current dedication of Corporation Business Tax revenue helps pay for water quality programs, polluted site cleanups, underground tank removal and cleanup, air pollution equipment for diesel engines, and improvements to parks.
Under the State's open space preservation programs, known as Green Acres and Blue Acres, land is bought to protect water supplies, create and maintain parks and fish and wildlife areas, and protect flood-prone areas. The Green Acres program also helps pay for improvements to parks.