TRENTON - A proposal to let voters decide whether to direct a fraction of sales-tax revenues toward land preservation for the next 30 years cleared another hurdle Monday when a Senate committee signed off on legislation to put the question on the ballot this November.
Land-use experts and preservationists were nearly unanimous in their support. Preservation proponents have long sought a stable, long-term funding source for open-space acquisitions, which include farmland, historic sites, and properties that repeatedly flood.
Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), who chairs the environmental panel that advanced the proposal, said he believes voters are more likely to agree to dedicate 1/35 of sales-tax collections to preservation than to accept two other funding options that were considered: a water-user fee or more borrowing.
If approved by voters, the allocation would generate about $200 million a year for the next 30 years.
Citing decades-long preservation programs, environmentalist Tom Gilbert said New Jersey's "tremendous legacy is in danger of coming to an end with so much important work that remains yet to be done."
"This will finally establish a sustainable source of funding for the state to reach its preservation goals over the next three decades before it's too late," said Gilbert, of NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of 175 environmental groups.
The Senate panel voted by 4-1 to advance the measure. It needs a three-fifths vote in the Senate and Assembly to get on the ballot. Gov. Christie's signature would not be required.
The dissenting voter, Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth), said she was concerned other state-funded programs would suffer in a down economy because the money directed to preservation would have otherwise be sent to the general fund.
The Sierra Club's Jeff Tittel was the only environmentalist to oppose the proposal. He also expressed concern about having less money available in the general fund for programs like clean energy, as it has been raided more than once by the Christie administration.
The most recent ballot question asking voters to allow borrowing for preservation, a 2009 bond referendum, provided $400 million for open space. That money has been allocated.
The Assembly's environment committee could take up the measure at its next session in June. There was no word on when it might be posted for a vote in the full Senate.
Sen. Kip Bateman (R., Somerset) is a cosponsor along with Smith.