What's wrong with New Jersey's legislators? They haven't been able to put aside their differences on preserving open space, once a no-brainer in the densely populated state. Democrats in the Senate and Assembly have introduced battling bills, a strategy that's bound to doom both proposals.
For the first time in decades, the state is out of money to acquire open space. There isn't a ready source of funds to buy out landowners along the coast, get them out of harm's way, and make room for Shore protection. And there's no stable funding to acquire parks or historic properties either.
As obvious as the need is, the Legislature doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. Assembly Democrats are proposing a fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable plan to issue $200 million in bonds. By some estimates, the borrowing would quadruple the cost of land purchases, while diverting money to investors and consultants rather than land. And advocates would be back begging for funds in a few years.
The better idea comes from state Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), who wants to set aside 2.4 percent of sales-tax revenues for open space, capped at $200 million a year. That might be more than the state can afford, but it's the right idea. There has to be a stable funding source to preserve land in a state that's about 80 percent developed, and likely to become the first in the nation to be entirely built out. The bill's pay-as-you-go mechanics are preferable to a one-shot bond deal foisted on future generations.
The Senate passed a version of the sales-tax measure last summer, but the Assembly recessed without even calling a vote. Because opponents questioned the state's revenue projections, Smith amended his bill with the $200 million cap. Critics may be right that it would commit too much money, but scrapping the open-space program instead of adjusting it would be a mistake.
Those making fiscal arguments should consider the continuing expense of cleaning up after floods. Without enough open space, water has no place to go but homes and businesses.
Even if the bickering legislative houses manage to pass a bill, it would still need Gov. Christie's signature. Let's hope he wouldn't compound his disappointing environmental record just to veto a measure that might not play well in a Republican presidential primary.
Both open-space bills are scheduled for committee hearings in Trenton today. Lawmakers should scrap the borrowing measure and negotiate a deal on setting aside sales-tax revenue. And they should put the onus on Christie by passing a genuine solution for protecting the state's open spaces.