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Geographic Distributional and Equity Implications of NJ’s Open Space Funding Mechanism

We Want Your Money and We Want It – Now!

The taboo politics underlying the Open Space funding dispute

The wonky title of this post sounds like a good research proposal – perhaps I should submit it to Dodge? :)

The best way to fund open space is now the subject of a raging debate. But that debate seems misplaced.

Let me suggest that the real debate is driven by and about policy, not funding and financial mechanisms.

As the debate is framed by the media, the choice appears to be between two competing financial plans: the Assembly is backing a bond referendum and the Senate is supporting dedication of a portion of the sales tax.

The environmental community is split: the “Keep It Green Coalition” supports the Senate’s Constitutional dedication of the sales tax, while Sierra Club and NJ Environmental Federation support the  Assembly bond alternative.

What explains this difference?

Based on reading news reports, one would think that “legislative squabbling” or turf wars between the Senate and the Assembly  was the cause of the inability to reach consensus on renewing the Garden State Preservation Trust, or Green Acres Program.

Here’s a typical superficial media treatment of that debate:

TRENTON — The stalemate over how to fund future open space purchases continued Thursday, with legislative committees in the Senate and Assembly advancing competing proposals.

In legislative hearings held simultaneously, the two bodies forwarded different methods of funding land preservation with no clear indication of which would reach voters, or when.

The Senate Environment Committee moved ahead with a proposal to fund open space purchases for 30 years by dedicating a percentage of the sales tax. The Assembly Budget Committee advanced a $200 million bond measure.

Or, listening to the testimony of the Keep It Green Coalition, one would think the impasse was due to the legislature’s

“inability to get its act together” (~~~ Tom Wells, The Nature Conservancy, formerly DEP Green Acres Administrator to the Senate Environment Committee today).

(Mr. Wells even had the gall, get this, to describe the Assembly $200 million bond issue as like “death from a thousand cuts” – and that is a verbatim quote. Methinks Mr. Wells is too well fed.)

But today, if one listened closely to the Senate testimony of Nicole Dallara of the Sierra Club, a much more complex set of issues emerge.

Sierra Club noted three key factors that explain the dispute:

1) the sales tax is a regressive mechanism, that is, the low income and poor – the least well off  – pay relatively far more than the wealthy and corporations;

2) the large majority of sales tax revenues are generated in urban areas (Sierra said that 80% of revenues were collected there, but I don’t know what the source of this data is. But, regardless of the precision of the data, the point seems obvious – urban areas are where the sales and commercial activity is);

3) urban areas and urban parks have historically been shortchanged in allocation of Open Space funds, as the majority of the money goes to rural and suburban area (again, Sierra claimed that 80% of the money went to rural/suburban while just 20% went to urban areas. And again, the precise data is not relevant, but the overall point seems clear – the open space is out in the countryside, while the underserved people whose relatively larger needs are not met are shortchanged and pay the lion’s share of the tab and live in the cities).

And the program funded by the Senate version would compound this situation by providing $40 million in new money for “stewardship” – funds that would be allocated to the very KIG member groups supporting the measure.

These observations raised profound geographical distributional impact and social equity questions.

The KIG coalition today seemed to shift the focus of their arguments to a claim that the sales tax is increasing and that the $200 million dedication would not divert any funds from existing programs. This shift conveniently ignores both the geographical distribution and social equity questions implicit in the sales tax funding mechanism and Open Space program they support.

These questions can no longer be swept under the rug.

The Sierra factors on who pays and who benefits suggest both a geographic distributional shift and reverse economic redistribution of income from the poor to the well off: reverse Robinhood.

When one considers who owns the lands that are purchased with those taxpayer dollars (corporations and the wealthy) and who lives there and benefits from the land that is purchased (mostly nearby homeowners and wealthy suburban towns), the case gets even stronger that there are gross disparities and inequities in the Open Space program that parallel NJ’s historic geographic reality: poor cities surrounded by wealthy suburbs – spatial relations as racial relations.

This explains why DEP lacks a strategy or plan or map or rational priorities for how the money will be spent. And why no legislator or “land conservationist” demands that they produce one – everyone likes a $200 million patronage honey pot.

So, given these un-mentioned equity and land planning issues, I find it most frustrating when members of the KIG coalition – many of whom receive state taxpayer funds to run their organizations and pay their salaries – seem so arrogantly oblivious to these social equity concerns.

And I wish that the press would stop tap dancing around this set of controversial issues and tell the story.

Giving exploding  inequality and a seemingly austerity driven right wing political prohibition on raising new revenues and making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share, we simply can no longer tolerate or afford to feed that growing inequality by transferring $200 million from the poor in the cities to the wealthy in the suburbs.

As our good Governor Christie has said, belly up to the bar gentlemen and break open your wallets.

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