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The Holdup on Open-Space Spending? Christie Wants to Say Where Funds Go

Friday, May 13, 2016   (0 Comments)
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NJspotlight.com 05/13/16

Preserving agricultural land in the Delaware Bay region. Protecting feeder streams to a major source of drinking water in the Highlands. Buying up undeveloped land in the Sourland Mountains. Those are some of the projects hoping for funding from an open-space initiative approved by voters 18 months ago -- if a bill awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s decision is signed into law. But it’s a big “if.” Christie vetoed a virtually identical bill earlier this year, and has expressed reservations about the latest measure (S-969), which once again passed with bipartisan support in the Legislature.

The governor said he wants flexibility in deciding where the money should go. The debate over how to use money from the open-space fund, particularly $20 million proposed to pay salaries of staff and maintenance at state parks, is shaping up as one of the more controversial side battles during deliberations over next year’s state budget.

“That was never the intent of voters,’’ Sen. Christopher (Kip) Bateman (R-Somerset), a co-sponsor of the bill on the governor’s desk. If signed, it would allocate $146 million over the next two years for preservation projects. If that happens, according to Bill Kibler, policy director of the Raritan Headwaters Association, it could provide the last piece of funding to acquire a 150-acre parcel in the Highlands, where several streams feed into the south branch of the Raritan River. “My message to the governor: Sign this bill.

We need the funding,’’ Kibler said at a press conference in the State House. The legislation would mark the first allocation of money from the ballot question since it was approved, although the administration also diverted $20 million from the fund last year to pay employees’ salaries at parks. A legal opinion from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services is that the diversion is not authorized under the current state budget. The governor’s office disputed the opinion, saying the diversion is a permissible use of the funds.


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