Does Back Room Open Space “Deal” Provide Cover for Democrats To Abandon Veto of DEP Flood Hazard Rules?
The damage continues from Keep It Green Open Space strategy
The press is reporting that Gov. Christie and the Legislature cut a last minute deal on open space to avoid an embarrassing over-ride of the Governor’s conditional veto, see:
- Christie cuts last-minute open space deal to avoid first veto override
- ELEVENTH-HOUR COMPROMISE COULD FREE UP OPEN-SPACE FUNDS
The text of the open space funding bill (S2456/A4017) is not yet posted on the Legislature’s website.
Therefore, it is impossible to know what the deal really means at this point – and whether additional compromises were made in the DEP budget – regardless of what the press is reporting and legislators and environmental groups are claiming, so I’ll not comment on the merits.
My concerns are:
1) how does the deal fund State Parks and core environmental programs slashed by the Open Space ballot question?
Will $20 million be diverted from the Clean Energy Fund to restore these cuts?
Will other DEP programs be cut or privatized to restore these cuts?
2) Is “stewardship” still an authorized use of open space money? (I assume that urban funding and fundamental allocation fairness issues remain unaddressed)
3) The Blue Acres money is a red herring – a fig leaf. The real issue in the Governor’s Conditional Veto was cuts to State Parks and DEP programs (Christie CV):
Ironically, while proponents of the amendment argued that it was pro-environment because it promised a steady funding stream for open space, the amendment always had the potential to siphon off money from important environmental programs, including site remediation and water quality initiatives.
The Governor was right – the environmentalists have been lying to the media.
4) what effect does the deal have on the pending legislative veto of Christie DEP flood hazard, storm water management, and coastal rules (SCR 66)?
If the political deal was designed to avoid the first ever and embarrassing legislative over-ride of Governor Christie’s conditional veto, did the Christie negotiators extract a commitment from Democrats also not to embarrass the Governor by vetoing his DEP’s rules?
The media quoted an anonymous Democratic Senator on the political sensitivity of the deal: (NJ.Com)
“Even though we have the votes, if we override him, he could just wait us out for the next 18 months and not fund any open space [initiatives]” explained one Democratic senator, who declined requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations that were still unfolding late Monday afternoon.
We assume that there is a similar “sensitivity” to a legislative veto of Governor Christie’s DEP rules.
The final legislative session is Thursday, June 30. The Democrats have negotiations and deals in the works on budget issues as well.
The legislative veto of the DEP’s flood hazard rules passed the full Assembly weeks ago, but the Senate version SCR 66 has not been posted for a vote in the Senate by Senate President Sweeney.
The deal on open space is not only designed to avoid embarrassment of Governor Christie. There are political benefits for the Democrats too.
Because the Keep It Green coalition made the veto over-ride appear as the number one environmental issue and the press gave it so much coverage, it makes the Democrats look like environmental champions.
And that provides sufficient green cover that allows them to quietly walk away from the legislative veto of DEP rules (SCR 66) – which the press has ignored.
As we warned, the simultaneous adoption and concurrent proposal makes it very difficult to understand what is going on and very easy for DEP to spin the press and Legislators and environmental groups:
“This sets up a very dangerous game of bait and switch and spin – DEP could adopt the bad parts and promise to re-propose the fixes but never adopt them.
The public and the Committee will be drowned in the weeds of a lengthy adoption – response to public comments document on the original proposal along with an entirely new and complex re-proposal document. This is a formula for political manipulation. It will take weeks to decipher the documents. Meanwhile, by the time the dust settles, the original proposal will be adopted into law and the Veto Resolution will have withered on the vine (faded into the budget debate) and the Legislature adjourned for the summer.”
So, let us put the latest train wreck collateral damage of the Keep It Green Open Space funding initiative in full context, so that we may understand the full scope of the damage it has caused to both open space and other important environmental programs:
1. At the outset, the Keep It Green coalition (KIG) set very low expectations.
The initial fatal flaw was the failure by open space advocates to seek NEW funding, as had been approved by the voters for 4 decades. Even Christie’s CV makes this point.
Clearly, the KIG folks were intimidated by Gov. Christie’s categorical opposition to any new debt or new revenues and unwilling to fight for new money.
2. Because they would not fight for or seek new money, they diverted about $100 million/year in existing Corporate Business Tax (CBT) revenues.
Those existing CBT revenues were originally dedicated by the voters in 1996 to key environmental programs – including water resources, toxic site cleanup, and State Parks.
The impetus for creating the 1996 CBT was because over $500 million in environmental funding had been slashed and diverted by Florio and Whitman. (Full disclose: I did the analytical work on this and worked on drafting the legislative Resolution that got CBT on the ballot).
The KIG eliminated this funding source and slashed funding for key environmental programs.
3. After failing to work for new money and diverting existing environmental funds, the KIG then pegged their revenue expectations to just $80 million per year, about one third of the average annual open space funding over the previous decade. They stole money and underfunded their own program!
4. Making that low revenue objective even worse, despite the fact that open space, historic preservation and farmland preservation needs far exceeded available funding and the deep cuts in funding, the Keep It Green Coalition supported a huge expansion of eligible uses for funds – for an entirely new program of “stewardship”. They wanted 20% of open space money dedicated to “stewardship” to fund their own pet organization projects, including logging on state lands.
5. Ironically, Governor Christie relied on the new “stewardship” allowable use to restore $20 million in funding to State Parks.
6. To cover up this incredibly poor strategy and weak compromise, KIG then duped voters by failing to tell them about the diversions that amount to deep cuts in core environmental programs.
I’ve spoken to over 100 people and none were aware of this and all would have OPPOSED it had they known.
7. After all this abuse, the KIG Green crowd compounded errors by pushing the veto over-ride and again misleading the public about the implementing legislation and the status of the dedicated open space money.
This gave democrats a pass for supporting open space and making the Gov. look bad (but without doing the heavy lifting to fight for new funding).
Did it also give Democrats cover for running away from the veto of DEP rules?
Right now, it sure looks that way. We’ll know for sure by Thursday.