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Open Space Ballot Initiative Forks Over More of New Jersey to State Control

Question 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot asks the voters of New Jersey to amend the state’s constitution to dedicate 4 percent, and later rising to 6 percent, of business tax revenues each year to buy open space, farmland and historic preservation sites.

In addition to expanding the state’s Green Acres Program, the ballot initiative will expand the state’s Blue Acres Program to purchase land in flood-prone areas and their buffer zones in order to demolish all improvements on them.  Nowhere in Question 2 or its explanation does it inform voters that its passage will result in the state government owning or controlling 43.3 percent of the state’s land.

The proposed ballot text reads as follows:

Do you approve amending the Constitution to dedicate 6% of the Corporation Business Tax revenue each year? The dedication would be for the preservation of open space, farmland, and historic sites.  The amendment would end the current dedication of 4% of that revenue for environmental programs. In addition, the amendment dedicates natural resource damages and fines to fund underground storage tank removals and cleanups and polluted site cleanups?

State Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill, estimated that during the first five years about $70 million per year of the business tax revenues would be directed to open space, and $117 million annually after that. However, other estimates would put the diverted tax revenues at closer to $150 million annually during the first five years and over $200 million per year after that. 

Citizens Suffer If Land-Grab Succeeds

Currently, the Garden State’s land is divided up approximately 32 percent developed, 30 percent either owned or preserved by the state and 38 percent rated as developable. However, much of the alleged developable land has restrictions either from the topography (mountains, cliffs, lakes, rivers, etc.) or from The Highlands Act, The Pine Barrens Act, C1 water designations, or other DEP or government restrictions.

This New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) land grab would keep 43.3 percent of the state’s land away from lawful use by the citizens of New Jersey for homes, schools, stores and places to work, lake associations and other home owners associations, private golf clubs and other recreation facilities.  It has been said that the best open space is your own backyard.  Private property owners in almost all cases take much better care of their land than the state does.

In addition, the DEP’s land grab will reduce the ratables for New Jersey’s towns, villages and cities to pay for their schools, police, fire, water, sewers, roads, sanitation and other municipal functions.  Some towns, such as Newton, already have had the ratable land reduced so much that they are having trouble operating.

Permanent Slush Fund

The proposed constitutional amendment contains no discussion of its merits.  The amendment would permanently commit future tax revenues for totally unspecified projects, and result in an unlimited slush fund estimated to be in the range of $4 billion in the first 30 years alone. This is roughly a 50 percent increase in the rate at which the state has spent money on open space during the last 53 years. And that amount is bound to increase since there is no limited time frame to collect revenue.

There is no indication of which properties will be acquired, why they are needed, whether they will be acquired from willing sellers or taken from unwilling owners by eminent domain.  According to its own figures, the New Jersey state government already owns nearly 15 percent of New Jersey’s total land area outright, and it has set aside nearly one-third of its total land area as protected open space.

NJDEP estimates that 1,499,923 acres of open space and farmland —30.2 percent of the total state land area—have been “preserved” through a combination of land purchases, purchases of private landowners’ development rights, and municipal-level acquisitions and easement purchases undertaken under the auspices of the Green Acres program.

In the past, Green Acres projects have been addressed with separate budget appropriations, subject to committee hearings and public debate, and each proposal could be discussed on its own merits.  Additionally, there have been 13 separate open space ballot initiatives since 1961. Approaching the issue by budget appropriations and separate ballot questions provided a somewhat manageable process in terms of open space needs and amounts involved—especially in light of the then current economic conditions and budget constraints.

Furthermore, without establishing a just need, the NJDEP claims a “need” to preserve an additional 650,000 acres of New Jersey’s land. If the NJDEP succeeds in its land grab, it would bring the total of the state’s land owned or preserved for open space and farmland to 43.3 percent of the state’s total land area.  How much is enough?

Since the state already owns or controls over 30 percent of the Garden State’s land, there is no reason why the state should need this overwhelming expansion of its Green Acres Program or be in such a hurry to push through this constitutional amendment.

The Consequences

If Ballot Question No. 2 passes, it will divert $150 to 200 million in tax revenue each year. And since the 30-year sunset provision was dropped, there is no time limit or designated year the tax collection will end.  Of course, the newly-diverted tax revenues would take money from other state expenditures.  Ballot Question No. 2 does not mention what current expenditures would be cut.  If current expenditures are not cut, there will have to be additional state taxes on the already hard hit New Jersey taxpayers.

Furthermore, the reduced local town and county ratable land will result in increased local property tax rates and drive more New Jersey residents across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania and Delaware, as well as to other lower tax states such the Carolinas and Florida.

Gov. Chris Christie said “I’ll be voting no” on the open space ballot question.  Because it is a ballot initiative, Christie cannot veto it.  The Legislature is using the ballot initiative route of amending the state’s constitution to get around Christie’s veto–as they have done before. Christie admonished the Democrat-controlled Legislature for using this method again even though the measure had Republican support.

Christie said, “It’s crazy stuff….But this is what happens when frustrated Democrats don’t get their way. They should not use the constitution this way. We’ve got plenty of money to deal with open space in this state.”

Featured image from Shutterstock

Richard Miner

Richard is a retired corporate attorney. In New Jersey, he was General Counsel of Mohawk Data Sciences, a NYSE-listed computer company, and VP and General Counsel of Momentum Technologies, a privately held computer company. He has a J.D. from Columbia Law School, a Masters in Corporate Law from NYU Law School, a B.A. in Economics from Brown University, and a certificate in Corporate Financial Management from NYU Stern School of Business. Raised in Ridgewood, NJ and a graduate of Ridgewood High School, he enjoys downhill skiing and races Lightning sailboats from his home at Lake Mohawk, NJ.

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