Open Space Bill Passes, But Question Won’t Appear On November Ballot

TRENTON – Supporters of a measure that would ask voters to dedicate a portion of the state’s sales tax revenue to open space preservation were unable to win the necessary votes to put the question on the November ballot.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney scheduled a rare mid-summer session to vote on SCR-160 on Monday, which passed by a 22-8 vote but fell short of the three-fifths majority needed to have a chance of being placed on this year’s ballot. The Senate must pass it again next year and the Assembly must pass it twice to put in on the 2014 ballot. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver had not yet scheduled a vote on the proposal.

State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) accused the governor’s office of calling every Republican senator and threatening their “political lives” if they voted for the bill.

A previous version of the legislation, which did not include a cap on the amount of money that would be diverted through the program, passed in the Senate by a 36-2 margin that included significant Republican support. The current measure caps the annual funding at $200 million.

“Today was a victory for open space funding in the Garden State,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “We had two Senators en route to the State House to get us the required 24 votes to put this issue on the ballot. However, we were given clear indications that the Assembly did not have the votes to pass this issue which would have prevented the referendum from going on the ballot this year.”

Oliver (D-Essex) fired back, “Any implication that the Assembly is to blame for the Senate’s failure to get 24 votes today is ludicrous…. I planned to call a Thursday voting session on the bill had it passed the Senate today. The Senate president and Senate sponsor need to remember the true reason why the blll did not get 24 votes today – the lack of support from Senate Republicans and Gov. Christie.”

Environmental advocate Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club expressed opposition to the proposal. “Open space is supposed to be part of sustainability but if the funding mechanism isn’t sustainable, it will lead to cuts in other environmental programs and that will make the state not sustainable.  We need to fund open space in a way that protects the environment and other important environmental programs,” he said, suggesting that a constitutional amendment to protect the Clean Energy Fund from budget-balancing raids and a return to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative would be more advantageous uses of limited dollars.

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