Farm, environmental and preservation groups fight for share of shrinking funds in New Jersey

Last year, historic preservation, farm and environmental groups banded together to persuade voters to support dedicating a portion of the state's corporate taxes for their causes. Since succeeding, the groups — including a few dissenters on last year's ballot measure — have been fighting over who will get how much.

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At a state Senate environment committee hearing Monday, officials with several groups dedicated to preserving historic structures said they need at least $10 million a year — and that it can come out of the share earmarked to buy and preserve open space.

Some environmental groups praised the idea of using state money not just to buy but also to "steward" land, with projects such as remediating wetlands and building trails; other groups warned about how that money could be used instead.

And Greg Remaud, deputy director of the Baykeeper of New York and New Jersey, certainly did not hold back. "I think farmland was greedy," he told lawmakers. "They were pigs at the tough."

For their part, some farm groups say more, not less, needs to go toward preserving farmland.

The public debate showed fissures that result from shrinking funding for all the causes.

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The Legislature estimates that the amount being set aside in the corporate business tax for the next four years will be $71 million annually. While the dedicated money is a long-term solution, it would bring in less than the $97 million a year the state has spent recently on preservation.

Environmental Committee Chairman Bob Smith, a Democrat from Piscataway, previously asked representatives of the preservation groups about how the funds should be prioritized.

On Monday, his questions were more focused: Exactly how much does each cause need, and where should it come from?

He received plenty of specific answers. Historic preservationists said the state should chip in $10 million to $15 million a year to save important buildings, or more than five times what Smith called for in a draft bill.

And some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, rallied against the idea of using any part of the dedicated funding to pay the salaries of state parks employees, something they said Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, intends to do.

Smith called the hearing part of a "game of chess."

His committee advanced a bill with one approach to dividing the money, but he promised to take into account the groups' suggestions for possible revisions before the measure gets another hearing from the budget committee.

Smith noted that no matter what the Legislature puts in the bill, there's a chance Christie will veto it.

Further, he said, Christie could also use a line-item veto to reduce any land or building preservation spending lawmakers put into the state budget that must be adopted by July 1.

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