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N.J. still grappling with how to fund open-space purchases

TRENTON With the state fund for new land-preservation projects depleted, Democrats in the Legislature agree they want to pump more money into the program next year.

TRENTON With the state fund for new land-preservation projects depleted, Democrats in the Legislature agree they want to pump more money into the program next year.

The problem: They can't agree on how to do it.

On Thursday, the Assembly approved a measure to put a $200 million bond question on the ballot next year. The Senate, meanwhile, is advancing a proposal to dedicate a portion of annual sales tax revenue - $200 million or 2.4 percent, whichever is less - for 30 years. Neither side, so far, is bending.

"Our citizens support it," said Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), a sponsor of the sales tax proposal, which cleared the Senate's Environment and Energy Committee on Thursday. "We shouldn't be afraid to put it on the ballot."

Hanging in the balance is the ability of New Jersey's preservation program to help counties and municipalities buy more land - crucial, environmentalists say, to protecting open space in the most densely populated state in the nation.

"My biggest concern is we're going to end up with nothing," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Many environmental groups back the Senate proposal to use sales tax revenue. New Jersey Keep It Green, a coalition of 180 state and local organizations, backs the Senate proposal.

"We maintain a sustainable source of funding is the right approach and absolutely essential," Tom Gilbert, chairman of the coalition, said during a hearing Thursday.

A one-time bond measure, Gilbert said, would "fail to address the critical long-term needs that remain and offer no predictability."

The Sierra Club and the New Jersey Environmental Federation oppose the sales tax approach, arguing that diverting money from an existing revenue source - instead of a new source, like a fee for water users - would spur cuts in other programs. Some funding for the Department of Environmental Protection, for example, comes from sales taxes.

At a recent committee hearing, Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said the Senate's approach was a nonstarter. "Other than what we're offering here today," Prieto said of the bond proposal, "the other option would be doing nothing."

Prieto, who said the state's revenue picture was too uncertain to commit a portion of the state sales tax, promised lawmakers would revisit the issue next year.

"We are really not kicking it down the road far," he said, noting that the composition of the Legislature - controlled by Democrats in both houses - would not change with the new session in January.

Smith said a bond would add to the state's debt load, in addition to not meeting preservation needs. Proponents of Smith's proposal - who point out that sales tax revenue is projected to rise in the coming years - say preservation efforts have been impaired without a steady source of state funding.

In 1998, the Legislature passed the Garden State Preservation Trust Act, setting aside $98 million a year in sales tax revenue for 30 years for land preservation. Some of the money was used to issue $1.15 billion in bonds, providing a total $2 billion for preservation. The tax revenue is now paying off debt from the bonds.

The amount of land preserved rose each year under the act, peaking at 49,000 acres in 2002. It fell as money from the act ran out in 2006, dropping to 26,000 acres in 2006.

Though voters said yes to a $200 million bond referendum in 2006 and a $400 million bond in 2009, land preserved each year continued to fall, to 12,000 acres in 2011. The state Green Acres program, which awards counties and municipalities matching grants for open-space purchases, has no money to award for new projects, though not all the money has been spent.

"It's just so clear what level of success we were able to have when we had a stable, ongoing source of funding to do this program," said David Epstein, president of the Land Conservancy of New Jersey.

The conservancy used to be involved in 40 land deals a year totaling 2,000 acres. This year, "we'll be lucky to do 20, and I don't think we'll do 400 acres," Epstein said. "There just isn't the funding among all the partners."

With land deals often taking several years to complete, "predictability is really important," said Alison Mitchell, policy director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

"If you don't know the money is going to be there at the end, it's hard to engage the landowner," she said. Though projects are still underway, Mitchell said, "it is pretty debilitating to have nothing in the pipeline."

County officials said the uncertainty of future state funding hadn't put a halt to their pending open-space projects.

In Camden County, money the state awarded in previous years is still available for open-space purchases, said Jack Sworaski, director of the division of environmental affairs.

The county also has money in its open-space trust fund, raised through property taxes. But if it makes two multimillion-dollar purchases it has planned - the Bancroft campus in Haddonfield and the Winslow Farm Conservancy in Winslow Township - and gets no additional money from the state, "our hands will be somewhat tied" for the future, Sworaski said.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said although the state's open-space money had been claimed, projects using that money were still underway.

"We are working on a measure to make funding available when these projects are fulfilled," Hajna said. He said he could not elaborate.

Whichever approach the Legislature takes, money won't be available immediately: The soonest either proposal could get on the ballot would be late 2014.

At a hearing Thursday on the sales tax proposal, Ed Wengryn, research associate with the New Jersey Farm Bureau, told Senate lawmakers the bureau hoped the measure would move forward.

The appearance that "the Legislature can't get its act together," he said, "erodes public support. A little bit."