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New Jersey Assembly advances constitutional amendment to preserve open space

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TRENTON, New Jersey — New Jersey votes will get to decide in November whether to dedicate a portion of the state's business tax revenue to protecting open space and farmland.

The Assembly voted Monday to place the measure on the ballot as a possible constitutional amendment. The Senate already had approved the ballot measure.

Voters in the nation's most densely populated state routinely have supported spending taxpayers' money to close some areas off to development. They have approved 13 ballot measures on the issue since 1961. Most recently, in 2009, they agreed to use $400 million for the cause.

Currently, 4 percent of New Jersey's corporation business tax is set aside for environmental programs.

Under the proposal, a portion of that would be redirected to open space preservation. And starting in 2019, 6 percent of the revenue would go toward open space and other environmental projects.

The Office of Legislative Services says the open space funds would initially tally $32 million annually. But by 2019, it projects the funds would get $117 million a year — and more if the state collects more in business taxes.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike hailed the plan as important to maintain the quality of life in New Jersey. "This desperately needed source of long-term, stable funding will go a long way toward protecting some of this state's best assets," Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from West Orange, said in a statement, "and we know voters will support that ideal."

But not everyone supports the plan.

The anti-tax group Americans For Prosperity already is campaigning against it, saying that nearly as much New Jersey land is already protected from development as is developed.

Assemblyman David Rible, a Wall Township Republican, was one of nine Assembly members to vote against the measure. He said preserving open space is a worthy goal but that the approach was wrong. "Constitutionally dedicating more revenues for a specific purpose will only hamper our ability to fund necessary programs during the next budget cycle," he said in a statement.

Gov. Chris Christie's office has ignored questions about the specific plan since last week, but his environmental protection commissioner has said Christie opposes the approach.

Despite the broad executive powers of New Jersey's governor, he cannot use a veto to keep off the ballot an amendment advanced by lawmakers or to stop one approved by voters from becoming part of the state constitution.


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