Leon Rosenson, Princeton
Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, dedicated by the voters of the state to fund critically important open space preservation, lie idle, frozen in Trenton limbo by Gov. Christie’s conditional veto of implementing legislation. Meanwhile, as Trenton gridlock drags on, open space in the Princeton area and our entire state continues to disappear at an alarming rate.
It is vitally important that legislators from our region (Sen. Bateman and Assemblymen Zwicker and Ciattarelli) help get the money into action by voting to override Gov. Christie’s misguided veto. All three legislators voted in favor of the implementing legislation, and Sen. Bateman is a lead sponsor. Assemblyman Zwicker has joined as a cosponsor.
Here’s the backstory: In 2014 New Jersey voters approved, by an overwhelming 65 percent majority, an amendment to the state constitution directing that a portion of revenue from the Corporate Business Tax be dedicated annually to open space. This mechanism provides open space funds on a reliable basis each year and obviates the need for periodic bond initiatives. About $80 million is available this year.
New Jersey’s open space preservation program has been around for over half a century. Each time the citizens vote to dedicate funds for open space the Legislature sets allocation priorities. Appropriate committees of both houses take testimony from all interested parties, including farmers, conservationists, business representatives, advocates for city parks, and others.
This procedure for allocating open space money, including hearings open to the public, assures a fair and transparent process. A consensus was reached both last year and in the current session to allocate 64 percent of the funds to the Green Acres Program, 31 percent to farmland preservation and 5 percent to historic preservation. The resulting bills were passed by bipartisan majorities in both chambers and sent to the governor’s office for final approval.
Here’s the mischief: Gov. Christie has become the first governor ever to veto such a bill. His purpose is clear; to usurp the Legislature’s constitutional authority to appropriate and direct state expenditures and replace it with a process that allows him, and any future governor, to allocate the funds in accordance with his or her political agenda for almost anything that can be at least vaguely connected to open space.
An example: Gov. Christie’ plans to use dedicated funds to pay for expenses normally paid from the state’s General Fund. By invoking a contorted misreading of stewardship language in the amendment he hopes to use money intended for long-term capital projects to pay for routine operating expenses such as salaries for current park employees and routine maintenance. This is certainly not what the voters intended.
In addition to its well-documented ecosystem benefits, protection of open space offers great economic return on investment of public funds. Some examples: Preserved land provides natural water filtration, saving huge sums in treatment expenses. Farming is a key component of the state’s economy and supports local business. Open land enhances property values. Outdoor recreational activities such as hunting, fishing and wildlife watching contribute about $1.7 billion annually to our economy. Marshland storm surge protection prevents billions in property damage.
Thirty years ago my wife and I returned to New Jersey from a brief stint in Philadelphia . Part of my daily commute to Plainsboro from East Windsor took me on rural roads bordered by farms, open fields and occasional woodlands. By the time, eight years ago, when we, long retired, moved to Princeton, the majority of those areas had been developed.
The same losses are occurring at a rapid rate throughout the state. If we are to have any hope of preserving, for the Princeton region and all of New Jersey, our rolling hills, marshland, pristine watersheds, farmlands, city and town parks and historic areas, the time for far-sighted and strong leadership is now.
Tell our legislators we expect no less of them. Urge them to override Gov. Christie’s shortsighted and damaging veto of open space funding.
Leon (Lee) Rosenson, a Princeton resident and former biotech executive, is retired and has had roles on the boards of a number of local environmental organizations. He is a member of the Princeton Hospital Biomedical Ethics Committee, and a past member of the Princeton Regional Health Commission (now Board of Health).
Leon Rosenson, Princeton