Home > Uncategorized > Coroner’s Report: Open Space Funding and “Forest Stewardship” Bills Suffer Similar Fate

Coroner’s Report: Open Space Funding and “Forest Stewardship” Bills Suffer Similar Fate

Before Rigor Mortis Sets In, A Quick Anatomy of Two Debacles

Yesterday, the Assembly effectively killed the proposed $17 billion sales tax diversion to fund open space for the next 30 years (for news coverage, see Tom Johnson’s at NJ Spotlight Open Space Funding Could Be DOA” – although Angela Dellisanti of AP “Vote Delayed on Open Space Ballot Question” has a more optimistic, and I think mistaken, take.)

Counterintuitively, in passing the “Forest Stewardship” bill and sending it to the Governor’s desk, the Assembly likely killed that bill too, because in an unusual outbreak of democratic floor debate, Republicans spoke out strongly against commercial logging in State forests and marshaled 27 party line votes opposed to the bill. Whether that was just an opportunistic partisan jab or a sincere policy opposition remains to be seen (news coverage: Star Ledger: “NJ Assembly passes “forest stewardship” bill to allow logging in state forests).

So, before rigor mortis sets in and all the forensic tests and lab results arrive, I’d like to provide a rapid preliminary Coroner’s Report describing the likely causes of death:

I) Open Space Funding

The most basic reasons why the “Keep It Green” (KIG) coalition failed were:

1) A toxic mix of Support for, Fear of, and Deference to Governor Christie.

Gov. Christie made  a firm commitment to secure a sustainable source of funding for open space.

The KIG  coalition never once demanded that he honor that pledge and never held the governor accountable to that promise (and still hasn’t – and likely never will – hold him accountable for failure to deliver).

Instead, KIG allowed Christie to dictate the policy terms of debate on the issue, a formula that was designed to fail.

Specifically, the Governor simply said no new taxes and no new debt. That posture killed the most appropriate means to fund the program.

Instead of pushing back against the Gov.’s  arbitrary and ideologically imposed  constraints – especially on the open space funding issue which the Gov. himself had promised to address –  the KIG coalition again deferred to the Gov.

That deference and the acceptance of those constraints is what led them to manufacture the seriously flawed proposal to divert the sales tax.

It also put the political onus on Democrats in the legislature to craft a solution. And that came back to bite KIG in the ass, big time.

2) Lack of a Plan – financial, strategic, land use, and for allocation of the money

It seems that basic information and analysis were lacking from the entire debate and that the KIG coalition failed to do their homework.

That’s why they were blindsided at the last minute by the OLS analysis that showed the program would divert $17 BILLION in sales tax revenues. That destroyed KIG’s credibility.

In addition to that huge failure on the revenue side, the KIG also seemed to lack an effective way to convey answers to basic questions like how much land is left now, how much will be lost to development, how much is regulated, and what $17 billion would buy.

The KIG coalition also never proposed reforms to longstanding flaws in the open space program, especially the lack of a strategic plan to target resources, political manipulation of priorities, and restrictions on purchase of regulated and undevelopable lands.

KIG also seemed to fail to articulate the urban investment side of the open space program,sufficiently to give urban democrats sufficient cover to support the program

3) Hubris and Selfishness

The KIG coalition – a largely elite, wealthy, white, suburban, republican leaning group – was righteously blind to the interest groups, the legislative politics, and an appreciation of how their proposed sales tax diversion scheme would be perceived.

It was way over the top and grossly selfish.

[Note: while we’re on the credibility front, KIG cites county and municpal Resolutions, impliedly in support of the sales tax diversion bill. But that is highly misleading. Those Resolutions support the following, NOT the sales tax:

_____ County supports establishment of a long-term, dedicated source of state funding for these purposes.

And in the process, KIG embarrassed McKeon and Smith, the bill’s sponsors, who could not convince their Democratic leadership or colleagues to go along, while giving Republicans rope to hang them.

Other than all that, the KIG ran a fine campaign – way to go! Heck of a job Tommy!

It was only their demure and deferential politics, fear of the Gov., lack of analysis, strategy, tactics, and message that failed.  No biggie, right?

II) “Forest Stewardship”

The fact that I – as well as the main stream media – have to put the title of the bill in quotes basically says it all – the initiative lacks credibility and can’t pass the straight face test.

Or as one sage public official put it:

Cutting a 100-year-old oak is about as popular as shooting puppies,” Allen said. ~~~ Star Ledger 12/12/11

My sense is that Gov. Christie will veto the bill – I can’t see him ignoring Republican colleagues in the Assembly.

Plus, DEP’s June 10 letter rejected the Forest Stewardship Council’s oversight, which is the main structural pillar of the bill and an essential safeguard. That letter basically sets up a veto.

The lack of a fiscal analysis also helps the Gov. claim that the program is an expensive new initiative that NJ can’t afford right now.

Christie’s other option would be a conditional veto, but I can’t see how a CV can resolve all the issues raised by Assembly Republicans and the bill’s opponents. including Sierra Club, Environmental Federation, Delaware Riverkeeper, and NJ Envrionmental Lobby, who all will seek a veto. Those groups have larger memberships  and stronger media and political clout than supporters.

The conservation groups that support the bill – NJ Audubon, Pinelands Preservation Alliance, Highlands Coalition, and NJ Conservation Foundation – are going to have to defend that support, especially in light of DEP’s rejection of FSC. The FSC certification was their cover for supporting the bill.

It could get very ugly, if reporters start asking questions about Audubon’s forestry work and FSC certification, particularly in light of DEP’s opposition to FSC.

It would be very interesting if the Gov. CV’d to eliminate the FSC – that would isolate Audubon, as I’m sure the other conservation groups supporting the bill would not support legislative concurrence with the Gov.’s CV.

Best guess at this point is that the Gov. will issue an absolute veto. DOA.

And that’s the view from the Coroner’s desk.

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  1. scott olson
    June 25th, 2013 at 09:48 | #1

    Spot on, Dr. Wolfe.

  2. Bill Neil
    June 26th, 2013 at 21:29 | #2

    All I want to do after reading the Coroner’s report is “wash my hands.” I’m glad I didn’t have to perform the autopsy, did enough of that back in the 1990’s. Good work Bill.

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