Open Space Funding Proposal Will Still Be a Bad Idea Next Year

The good news: The Senate’s failure last week to get enough votes to put a measure to constitutionally dedicate existing revenues for open space preservation on this fall’s ballot is a victory for prudent fiscal policy. The bad news: That victory will very well be short-lived, with the same question likely to appear on the ballot in 2014 instead of 2013.

Here’s why: The Senate had to get a supermajority of votes (24) to put the question on the ballot this year, as outlined in the state constitution (the Assembly would have had to do the same). Instead, it got just a simple majority (22 votes); when this is the case, the resolution to put the question on the ballot must be passed by the legislature two years in a row (such was the case with this year’s minimum wage question). Assuming the Assembly can also pass the bill before this legislative session ends, the proposal will be on track for the 2014 ballot.

This year or next, this proposal is no way to fund open space. It’s irresponsible fiscal policy, particularly at this moment, when so many other needs of New Jerseyans remain unmet and when our budget is staring down a full phasing-in of pension obligations over the next four years. The $200 million that would be dedicated annually would represent 20 to 25 percent of the revenue growth during this period after the increased pension obligation is paid for.

There is no argument that open space preservation is an important priority; historically, voters have agreed. So why won’t supporters do the right thing for the state’s finances and accept a shorter-term solution – a bond referendum on the ballot to fund the program? A $500 million bond issue would only cost the state around $38 million each year over 20 years.

“Debt” has become a four-letter word with the steady drumbeat about government borrowing and the federal deficit. But using debt for long-term capital projects – like building schools and roads or purchasing open space – will always be a legitimate use of borrowing. A family enjoying a picnic lunch at a park in 2024 should pay their share of the costs of creating a permanent asset.

Supporters may also believe that they should “go for the gold” and push for what looks like a long-term solution – regardless of the impact it will have on the rest of the state budget.

It is now up to legislators to decide what route is best – not only for open space preservation, but for the entire state. They, and the governor, must balance the needs of many competing priorities in the budget each year. Legislative Democrats often argue – as they did again this year – that crucial priorities in the budget (school aid, Earned Income Tax Credit, preschool expansion and others) remain underfunded. Why, then, would they turn around and support a measure that could make fully funding those priorities even more difficult in the future?

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