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N.J. Sierra Club: Christie’s Open Space Money Grab Unconstitutional and Unconscionable

press release

(MARCH 28, 2016)--The Office of Legislative Services released a memo stating Governor Christie has violated the constitutional dedication on open space when he took those funds for NJDEP salaries. The Governor also has held up open space funding for Green Acres and open space preservation. Recently OLS found that under the annual appropriations act, it was unconstitutional for the Governor to line item veto Corporate Business Tax (CBT) funding for park salaries at the NJDEP.


This occurred after the legislature tried to reverse the Governor’s move and rob $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund. The Governor used it for parks salaries instead. Green Acres also received an appropriation of $103.3 million from the Legislature in 2015, but it has yet to be used. As a result of the games played by the Governor, another $46.2 million of Green Acres, Farmland Preservation, and Historic funding was emitted from this year’s budget.


“Governor Christie, in the current budget, stole money from open space to pay for DEP staff salaries for parks. The money that he diverted was dedicated to preserve open space and farmland and OLS determined what the Governor did was unconstitutional. The state legislature last year tried to block him from doing this, but he line itemed vetoed funding from another source and then went back to taking CBT open space money instead. What the Governor did not only showed his arrogance, but his abuse of power. The legislature said what the Governor was doing was wrong, they reversed him, but he changed it back to his original way of stealing the open space funds. For revenge, he blocked funding for open space and farmland preservation,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “When the Governor used his line item veto, he took the money, but he also stopped funding for open space. His actions show that budgets have consequences. In the race to open space, the Governor has sided with the bulldozers. People are willing to sell their properties for open space and development rights for farmland preservation, but without funding this land is sold to developers. The Governor not only stole $20 million of open space for park salaries, which could have brought more Green Acres land, but has also held up funding for farmland and historic preservation.”


Last year, the Legislature in both budget language and legislation, wanted to establish the permanent authorization of the annual distribution of CBT funds through Garden State Preservation Trust of $80 million in FY2016 and beyond so they took out funding for Green Acres, Farmland, NJ Historic Trust. However, by failing to sign the bill, the Governor pocket vetoed it. The legislature also transferred $19.97 million in State Parks funding from CBT to the BPU Clean Energy Fund. For retribution of diverting clean energy funds instead of open space funds, the Governor line item vetoed the $20 million to be used for park salaries in the legislature’s budget. The Governor also failed to release funds of $46.2 million for Green Acres, Farmland Preservation and Historic Preservation from the CBT.


“The Governor’s plan this year is to do the same thing. He wants to take money from Corporate Business Tax dedication and not use that money for open space, build or fix parks, but to instead fund staff. The voters did not support this money to be used for DEP park salaries. Even worse we need to utilize the millions of dollars constitutionally dedicated for open space, otherwise we will lose these properties to developers,” said Jeff Tittel. “Voters approved the dedication of funding for open space and there is also money left over from previous open space bond acts. The money is supposed to be for people of New Jersey so we can protect and preserve open space for future generations.”


The Office of Legislative Services recently found that “In the absence of a specific language provision in P.L. 2015, c.63 appropriating from corporate business tax revenues constitutionally dedicated for open space preservation, it is the opinion of Legislative Counsel that there is no authorization for the Governor to expend funds for Parks Management from the constitutionally dedicated corporate business tax revenues.” 


“We must make sure the legislature steps in this year to prevent the budget grab, because not only it is wrong, but it is unconstitutional. Currently, we have no money for open space. We also need funding for Blue Acres to buy out flood prone properties and need money for urban parks, but the Governor’s budget has failed to include the funding. This shows the Governor’s priorities are wrong,” said Tittel. “We used to average over 200 million for open space, but with this Governor, he has only given less than half of that. In the past 60 years, this is the least amount of money than any other Governor we’ve had in current dollars.”


Funding for Green Acres programs has been on hold for years. After not meeting for two years, the GSPT finally met and approved a resolution to release $93 million to the DEP Green Acres program. There is at least $93 million in local and non-profit grants available and the holdup has impacted more than 50 open space projects around the state. $93.3 million of that came through the GSPT, approved in June 2015, plus $10 million circumvented the Garden State Preservation Trust and went straight to the Legislature. However, these funds had been held hostage at the Treasurer’s office because the legislature has failed to pass an open space bill to implement them.


“The Governor did not allow the Garden State Preservation Trust to meet, which held up open space funding for years. They finally met, but the money is still being held hostage. The Governor’s delay to release open space funding has hurt the bottom line. Now that the money has been released, but not spent he has allowed the Treasurer to hold this money ransom, while keeping the money and the bank accounts. This is actually a budgetary gimmick to make it look like the state has more money than it actually has. The money needs to be spent on what it is supposed to purchase: open space,” said Jeff Tittel. “We have lost properties that were supposed to be bought out for open space. Property owners have been waiting too long.”


While funding has been on hold for open space, DEP staffing is still down by more than a third under Governor Christie and more positions continue to go unfilled. There are many gaps in programs and they are cutting staff at core programs in the agency like enforcement and water. Instead the proposed FY17 budget is again shifting money to vague “stewardship” programs. Stewardship is not defined and often used for logging and other things that undermine the protection of natural resources in our parks. For example, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife cut down trees to create grass habitat. We could be clear-cutting the Pinelands to create habitat for invasive species. Giving money to stewardship would mean it ends up being used for the wrong purposes.


“The Governor’s policies side with stewardship over actual environmental programs. Pushing for stewardship on public lands is a way to allow for private companies to log environmentally sensitive public lands. Cutting staff at core programs in the agency like enforcement and water put our environment and public health at risk,” said Jeff Tittel. “The Governor is using the idea of stewardship to try to privatize Liberty State Park. He has cut staffing for parks to lowest level in 30 years so he can use ‘stewardship programs’ instead. He is trying to turn New Jersey’s famous historic landmark into a shopping mall or entertainment center.”


The open space bill S969 (Smith) passed in the Senate implements 2014 constitutional dedication of CBT revenues for certain environmental purposes; revises State's open space, farmland, and historic preservation programs. This legislation cut all funding for Blue Acres, an important bill that helps those affected by flooding and storms by using buy-out programs. The bill also provides no set aside for urban areas and makes cuts for parks in urban areas and switches funds to so called “stewardship” instead. Without a bill for open space with the right priorities, we may see open space funding go to so-called “stewardship,” which is just an excuse to fund park salaries and log on public lands.


“Governor Whitman wanted to save 1 million acres, but it looks like Governor Christie wants to pave 1 million acres. The Governor has funded the least money of open space than any other Governor in state history. He has diverted open space money for park salaries, which has been proven unconstitutional by the Office of Legislative Services. Our Governor has clearly sided with the bulldozers and developers over preservation,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “In his proposed budget again this year, the Governor has provided no Blue Acres or monies for urban parks. He may not just try to grab the $20 million from open space for park salaries, but also block open space too. Is the governor going to tell a kid in Newark that instead of having a new park we have to pay NJDEP salaries with that money? The legislature must prevent a further grab from Governor Christie to take open space funding and introduce a new bill that avoids stewardship that includes funding for urban parks and Blue Acres.”


The memo from the OLS can be found attached and additional history from the Garden State Preservation Trust.


Green Acres received an appropriation of $103.3 million from the Legislature in 2015, funded mainly from the build-up of Green Trustloan repayments. $93.3 million of that came through the GSPT, approved in June 2015, plus $10 million circumvented the GSPT and went straight to the Legislature. So they have a substantial amount of gas in the tank.

In the final State Budget for FY16, there was no added funding for Green Acres and no funding whatsoever for FarmlandPreservation and Historic Trust.


Here is the history:


The Governor in his Budget Proposal submitted in February 2015 forecast that the 4% CBT dedication would make available $80 million. The Governor's proposal included  $46.2 million for GSPT programs as follows:

·         $27.9 million for Green Acres

·         $16.9 million for Farmland Preservation

·         $1.4 million for Historic Preservation

The Governor's budget proposal ALSO included:

·         $19.97 million to operate the State Parks (stewardship)

·         $13.93 million for capital projects at the State Parks (stewardship & development)


The Legislature, meanwhile, was advancing S-2769 to establish the permanent authorization of the annual distribution of CBT funds through GSPT, the full $80 million in FY2016 and beyond.


Because the Legislature wanted to force the Governor’s hand on S-2769, they stripped out of the State Budget Act the funding for Green Acres, Farmland, NJHT. They also transferred $19.97 million in State Parks funding from CBT to the BPU Clean Energy Fund, leaving only the $13.93 million for capital projects intact. (The Governor has line item veto but cannot insert spending items, or so it is thought.)


The Legislature wanted to put the Governor in the position that he had to sign S-2769 to release the constitutionally dedicated CBT funds. (I believe the KIG Campaign endorsed this strategy).

The Governor refused to do so. In the Veto Message, the Governor deleted the Clean Energy Fund language, and as a result the CBT dedication was used to fund the $19.97 million for State Parks after all.


So, with regard to the CBT dedication in the final State Budget signed into law:

·         $27.9 million for Green Acres was deleted

·         $16.9 million for Farmland Preservation was deleted

·         $1.4 million for Historic Preservation was deleted

·         $19.97 million to operate the State Parks was deleted by the Legislature and restored by the line-item veto

·         $13.93 million for capital projects at the State Parks was approved by the Legislature & Governor