by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation
It’s been a strong year for sales tax collections, a sign that New Jersey’s economy is beginning to recover. The state collected 3.8 percent more in fiscal year 2013 than in the previous year. The first quarter of the new fiscal year was even better, with sales tax revenues up a robust 11 percent. And revenues from holiday spending are still rolling in!
Why the excitement? The New Jersey Legislature is proposing historic legislation to fund open space and farmland preservation for the next 30 years by dedicating a small portion of the state’s sales tax revenues.
On Dec. 5, state Senator Bob Smith introduced a bill that would dedicate up to $200 million a year toward Green Acres, farmland preservation, historic preservation, and Blue Acres buyouts of flood-prone properties.
Senator Smith’s bill is similar to two others passed by the Senate earlier this year, but the new bill addresses concerns about what might happen if sales tax revenues go down in the future. The bill would dedicate $200 million or 2.4 percent of sales tax revenues per year – whichever is lower.
With the new safeguards, the bill is a win-win proposal … in the nick of time.
New Jersey, our nation’s most densely populated state, has officially run out of land preservation funding. Funds from the 2009 Green Acres ballot question have been spent or allocated. No new state land preservation projects are moving forward.
The next 30 years are critical. It’s projected that by mid-century, the state will become the first in the nation to reach “full build-out,” when every acre of land is developed or preserved.
Being without conservation funding is an unusual state of affairs for New Jersey, given the huge success and popularity of land preservation programs. Since 1961, New Jersey voters have passed all 13 Green Acres ballot questions. And funding for land preservation has always enjoyed bipartisan support.
But these days that support is tinged with caution. After the economic recession and Superstorm Sandy, we have become averse to new taxes and increased borrowing.
That’s the beauty of Senator Smith’s proposal. Sales tax revenues are currently growing, and if growth trends continue as projected, funding for land preservation would not reduce funding for other programs. The current sales tax rate, 7 cents per dollar, would not increase.
Recent polling has shown that voters would rather dedicate existing sales tax revenues than create new taxes.
In a poll earlier this year, 71 percent of voters said they would support dedicating 2.5 percent of existing sales tax revenues to conservation, with no increase to the sales tax. Far less support was found for new taxes and bonding.
Senator Smith’s plan to fund land preservation through sales taxes would require voter approval through a ballot question next November. But before the question can go to voters, it must get through the Legislature.
“The Senate has shown extraordinary leadership on this issue,” said Tom Gilbert, chairman of the New Jersey Keep It Green coalition. “We are counting on the Assembly to act, so that New Jersey’s bipartisan legacy of preservation continues.”
Please contact your state Senator and Assembly representatives and urge them to pass Senator Smith’s bill, SCR165, and let the voters decide on sustainable funding for land preservation! To find your district’s legislators, go to the state Legislature’s website at http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/legsearch.asp.
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