TRENTON, New Jersey — The outgoing leader of the New Jersey Assembly says it's important that legislators figure out how to replenish the depleted open space fund before the end of the year, but there appears to be no consensus on how to fund the land acquisition program long-term.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver told an audience in Atlantic City this week that reaching a compromise on open space funding is a priority in the lame-duck session of the Legislature. But with the current session ending in mid-January, lawmakers are running out of time.
A stop-gap bill is expected to be introduced in the Assembly on Monday that would ask voters to approve $200 million in borrowing. A bond referendum on next November's ballot would be a temporary solution while lawmakers look for a stable funding source that Democrats and Republicans would support.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald of Camden County told The Associated Press a short-term fix would grant legislators a year to identify a permanent stream of money that isn't already dedicated to pay for something else.
He said he does not support using sales tax revenue for open space since those collections are relied on for other purposes. "It would be like spending the money twice," he said.
The state Senate passed a resolution in June that would have asked voters to direct a portion of state sales tax revenue to fund open space acquisitions for 30 years, but it stalled in the Assembly amid concerns that it had no cap and could wind up redirecting billions of dollars in revenues needed elsewhere. The Senate added a $200 million annual cap in July but fell two votes shy of the supermajority needed to advance the proposal to the Nov. 5 ballot.
"A priority in the next two months will be coming to some compromise and consensus around refueling our open space preservation trust fund," Oliver said Wednesday during a legislative leadership panel. "It's depleted. We need it now more than ever. We have to figure out what we're going to commit to."
Oliver said several alternatives are being considered, including adding a trigger point to the resolution, so that less money would go to open space when revenues fall below expectations.
The imposition of a water use fee of $2 per month was briefly reconsidered as well but apparently was shelved again.
Polls show voters strongly support open space. A Fairleigh Dickinson/Public Mind poll taken this month found 80 percent of residents support continued funding for open space, but respondents were divided on how to fund it.
The coalition of environmental groups known as Keep It Green has been advocating for a long-term funding source to replace the short-term bond referendums that voters have consistently approved for 50 years.
"Dedicating existing sales tax has been the funding mechanism that has enjoyed historic, bipartisan and overwhelming public support," said Kelly Mooij, coordinator for Keep It Green.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he was comfortable with the resolution the Senate passed because it's not based on borrowing. He said he is open to discussions with the Assembly.
"The Assembly has to figure out what they want to do so we can talk to them. They haven't given us any indication what they want to do," he said Thursday in Atlantic City.
A ballot question proposing a constitutional amendment to dedicate a portion of the sales tax to open space would need approval of the Legislature for two consecutive years, or approval in a single year by supermajorities in both houses. Democrats control both houses by supermajorities, but affirmative votes would be needed from every Democrat if no Republicans were to join.
Alternately, a bond referendum could be placed on the ballot with simple majority votes in both houses.
GOP Gov. Chris Christie's signature is not required. However, Republican lawmakers have been voting in accordance with his positions — the governor hopes to offer a tax cut proposal that would rely, in part, on sales tax revenue.