The Christie administration’s diversion of $20 million from an open-space fund to pay salaries at state parks was condemned yesterday at a legislative hearing in what is emerging as an acrimonious side battle over next year’s budget.In a hearing before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, open-space advocates argued such diversions were never contemplated by voters in the fall of 2014 when they easily approved a new constitutional amendment setting aside corporate business taxes to fund acquisition of undeveloped land and farmland preservation.
The diversion, which first took place in last year’s budget, would be repeated in this year’s fiscal spending plan for the state under a proposal submitted by Gov. Chris Christie. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the committee chairman and sponsor of the ballot question, called the rerouting of the funds “unconstitutional,’’ and possibly criminal.
Last month, the Office of Legislative Services issued a legal opinion that concluded the use of the funds to pay state employees’ salaries at parks is not authorizedunder language in the current budget, a position disputed by the Christie administration. It said the diversion is a permissible use of the funds consistent with the constitutional amendment.
Meanwhile, the Legislature has given final approval to a bill (S-969), now on the Governor’s desk, that would allocate $146 million over the next two years to fund open space, farmland, and historic preservation, but it includes no money for park salaries. Those operations traditionally have come out of the general fund.
“My belief is we probably will get a veto, maybe a conditional veto, but a veto,’’ Smith said of the bill. An identical bill won approval early in January in the lame-duck session, but was pocket vetoed by the governor without any explanation of why he objected to the measure.
Smith’s priority now is to begin allocating money from the new, approved open-space fund, none of which has been spent yet on its intended purposes. “How do we get to the finish line? You would think a constitutional amendment would have been enough,’’ he said.
Others also wanted assurances that corporate business-tax revenue intended to be used for open-space projects is not being diverted to other uses. Smith said he has written letters seeking an answer to that question from the state treasurer, but has yet to hear from him.
Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) joined Smith in pressing the administration to not divert open-space money. The Republican urged his Democratic colleague to press Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to insist to the governor during private negotiations over the budget this spring to refrain from using the money to pay state salaries.
Several of the groups who had lobbied to put the constitutional question on the ballot backed the lawmakers’ position, including the New Jersey Farm Bureau “It’s a real concern for us,’’ said Ed Wengryn, of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, noting funding for farmland preservation is exhausted.
“There is a mismatch with the will of the voters if the governor does not sign this bill,’’ added Ed Potosnak, chairman of New Jersey Keep It Green, a coalition of conservation and recreational groups that backed the ballot question.
A concerted lobbying effort to convince Christie to sign the bill is underway with a petition drive and efforts to have county freeholders and other officials pass resolutions supporting the legislation, according to conservationists. If the funds are diverted again, the New Jersey Sierra Club said it will challenge the action in court.