Despite a split in the environmental community, a long-awaited bill to set up a funding plan for open-space and farmland preservation cleared a legislative committee yesterday. The legislation, unanimously approved by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, revives a measure pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year. An identical bill already has been moving forward in the Senate, a step lawmakers hope will finally free up money to pay to preserve the state’s fast-dwindling open space and farmland under a ballot question overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2014. The bill (A-780) is controversial because it provides less money than had been allocated to the program in past years, resulting in some groups asserting that it shortchanges efforts to buy up flood-prone properties in New Jersey and target money to urban areas.
Nevertheless, the legislation is strongly backed by a broad coalition of conservation organizations, agricultural officials, and historic-preservation advocates who have seen funding dry up in the past few years. In the past, largely relying on bond issues approved by voters, as much as $200 million a year was spent on preservation programs. In approving the ballot question, however, much less money — about $80 million in next year’s state fiscal budget plus another $66 million in yet to be allocated funds from corporate business taxes — is available for the effort. The ballot question drew some opposition, in part because it would divert some corporate business taxes that had been targeted to develop brownfields, contaminated industrial tracts that had have lain fallow, and clean up underground storage tanks.
Conceding that the bill does not allocate any money from the corporate taxes to the Blue Acres program, Ed Potosnak noted there is still $11 million in unspent money for the purpose from a 2009 bond issue as well as another $33 million in unallocated money for that use. Noting the dispute over where the money is proposed to be spent, Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the committee, urged both sides to suggest amendments to the sponsor before the bill reaches the full Assembly. “We’re moving in a direction that will benefit all,’’ she said. Others agreed. Both farmland and historic-preservation advocates noted funds for those programs have exhausted all their financing options. Since 2013, there has not been any approval for funds for farmland preservation, leaving the four largest counties with agricultural-protection programs no money to preserve the land, according to Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau. Under the bill, the bulk of the money would go to the state’s Green Acres program (61 percent), which funds open-space acquisition and park development. Thirty-one percent would be used for farmland preservation and 5 percent for historic preservation. Both the Assembly and Senate bills await action by the respective budget committees.
A proposal to put a question on November’s ballot asking New Jersey voters to approve expanding casino gambling to the northern part of the state took another step forward Monday, though some critics said the plan is missing key details. The state Assembly’s judiciary committee voted 6-2 to approve the resolution, which would ask voters whether to amend the state constitution to allow two casinos in north Jersey. Currently, the constitution allows casino gambling only in Atlantic City, where in recent years four casinos have closed and tax revenue from casinos has been cut in half amid increasing competition from neighboring states. The state Senate budget committee approved the proposal last month. Now, both the full Senate and Assembly will consider the proposal. Three-fifths of each chamber need to approve it for it to reach the Nov. 8 ballot. But some opponents of the plan said voters should have more information before deciding, including how much the tax rate for the casinos will be. That, they say, will help estimate how much money will be sent to help redevelopment in Atlantic City
Under the proposal, the Jersey Shore resort town would receive up to $200 million annually in taxes from the new casinos to help offset the losses it is likely to incur from north Jersey gambling. Sponsors have said the tax rate, as well as where the casinos will be located, will be decided in later legislation. But Assemblyman A. Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) said voters deserve to know now. “Wouldn’t you want to know how much money is coming back to the state?” Brown asked Monday. “If you were running a business, before you opened another franchise and competed against yourself, these are some very basic questions that you would want to know.” Casinos in Atlantic City pay a tax rate of about 9.25 percent. Sponsors have said the new casinos might pay more. Brown has warned the plan would “kill Atlantic City,” causing more casinos there to close. Proponents have said the new casinos will bring more jobs and revenue to the state, keep New Jersey competitive in the northeast gaming market, and give Atlantic City more funds to reinvent itself.
The new casinos’ locations have not been specified, either — though the measure says they must be in two different counties, at least 72 miles from Atlantic City. That includes New Brunswick, but excludes race tracks in Oceanport and Freehold and large Middlesex County towns like Edison and Woodbridge. But at least two casinos have been proposed: one at Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford and another in Jersey City. There is now a 20-day waiting period before the proposal can be heard in the Senate and Assembly.
A bill to restore hundreds of millions of dollars paid by utilities to local governments in New Jersey for property tax relief advanced through a state legislative committee on Monday. The legislation, (A302), would restore $331 million in cuts to energy tax receipts and Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief Aid over five years. But there’s a catch: the money must be used to offset local tax levies. The energy tax was originally intended for local towns. But New Jersey governors, starting with Jon Corzine, diverted the money to the state treasury to balance the budget. Local officials raised the issue with state lawmakers several years ago, asking them to return the badly needed funds. Similar bills were introduced in 2013 and 2014. The 2013 version passed the full state Assembly by an overwhelming majority but died in the state Senate.
The new bill is also sponsored by Republican and Democratic Assembly members. The state would restore the $331 million over five years, ending in 2021, when the municipalities would be returned to the amount they’d received in 2008. Lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly have said they’re going to push property tax relief in the new session, which began last month. State data released Friday showed the average statewide property tax bill rose from $8,161 in 2014 to $8,353 in 2015. Jon Moran, a legislative analyst with the League of Municipalities, said “the cumulative impact of years of underfunding have left many municipalities with serious needs and burdensome taxes.” He told the committee the organization supports the “vast majority” of the bill, but not the requirement the funds offset reductions in municipal levies. Local officials, he said, have few alternatives to generate revenue outside of the property tax levy. They have “demonstrated their dedication to limiting local property tax increases,” but fear the bill’s mandate will restrict their ability to address their communities’ respective needs. Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) argued that money belongs to the taxpayers, not municipalities. “At the end of the day, the money is not derived from town A or city B. It’s derived from the people of those communities,” he said. “So, the way we look at it, we are simply returning that money back to the people who actually put the money in the pot in the first place.”
A new report by AAA finds drivers are becoming more concerned about congestion and safety because of deteriorating road conditions in New Jersey. 45 percent of Garden State drivers say their commute has gotten worse over the past two years and 31 percent rate their local roadways as poor. Old Bridge resident Michele Mount says she’s had plenty of problems during her daily commute to Hamilton. “I had a motorist hit me because they were avoiding bad roads and winded up rear ending me because they swerved and hit me. I had a truck pick up a rock and hit my windshield and unfortunately the windshield needed to be replaced. Then I also had the privilege of hitting a pothole which caused me to get a new tire.”
Tracy Noble with AAA says deteriorating roadways can be expensive. “Costs for repairing damage caused by potholes can range from $50 for a simple wheel alignment to $600 for more expensive tires and wheels. You could also incur costs of up to $2500 for steering components and vehicle suspension that may also be impacted.” Senate President Steve Sweeney says the report highlights the importance of investing in the Transportation Trust Fund, but he hasn’t yet discussed with the governor’s staff how to provide that revenue.
Democratic state lawmakers said Monday a survey from AAA which found that 45 percent of New Jersey residents believe their commute has gotten worse in recent years, adds new urgency to their efforts to find a funding solution for the Transportation Trust Fund. Senate President Stephen Sweeney said the process remains stalled, with he and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto on pretty much the same page as they await a meeting with Gov. Chris Christie. Sweeney said he has not met with anyone on the governor’s staff about the issue, nor have his aides. “I’ve worked on a few things with the governor. We’re working on Atlantic City right now with his staff,” Sweeney said at a Statehouse press conference with representatives from AAA. “Someone has to be able to sit down with us and start the process. We’re getting late in the game. It’s February. June is when we’re going to run out of money. I know the governor says we’re not, we feel we are. And I think everyone else realizes we are also.” The trust fund, which spends about $3 billion a year in state and federal funds on road, rail and bridge infrastructure projects and repairs, is set to go broke July 1. The Republican governor, who is campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday’s primary, has said lawmakers should act first and that he will consider whatever they approve. Kevin Roberts, the governor’s spokesman, also noted the Democrats don’t actually have a proposal.
The issue is not an easy one for Christie to tackle as he tries to appeal to GOP voters in other states. He has signed a pledge not to raise taxes and many believe replenishing the trust fund will require an increase in the state’s 14.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax. Polls show a majority of voters oppose an increase in the gas tax, but Republicans are willing to consider it so long as they get something in return, most likely a reduction in the estate tax. Christie has simply called for “tax fairness,” and has cited the estate tax as an example of a place that could be cut. Democrats have expressed a willingness to work out a deal along those lines. “When our roadways crumble, we feel it in our wallets, in the hours in our car and in every pothole we hit,” Cathleen Lewis, the director of public affairs and government relations for the motor club in New Jersey, said during Monday’s press conference with Sweeney and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.
Sweeney said the survey was evidence that whatever funding solution they develop for the trust fund include more money for local and county roads. Funding for those types of projects through the TTF has been nearly cut in half compared to earlier trust fund allocations, he said. “The one thing we feel strongly about, like I said, is it has to be a real plan,” Sweeney said. “A $2 billion plan that doubles the money to towns and counties. As you hear, towns and counties have a lot of roadways and they’re the roads that are deteriorating the worst.”