New Jersey voters may weigh in on $600 million of borrowing for open space initiatives in November as lawmakers plan to move forward on a bond bill that will help keep the Garden State Preservation Trust solvent beyond June 30.

Members of the Senate Environment Committee tomorrow will amend a prior bond measure that, if passed by the Legislature, would be on the ballot for November's general election. The initiative would allow New Jersey to issue $600 million of bonds backed by the state to help fund the GSPT for the next three fiscal years, according to a legislative aide who asked to remain anonymous.

Lawmakers have until June 30 to place a bonding referendum on the November ballot.

Voters approved $200 million of state-appropriation bonding in 2007 to support the GSPT in fiscal 2009. Prior to that, the trust ran on a 10-year, $1.2 billion bonding program backed by annual sales tax revenue allocations of $98 million.

The anticipated $600 million bond bill is a shift from earlier plans to implement another long-term, dedicated funding source for the GSPT. Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, who chairs the committee, and Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, who chairs the General Assembly's Environment and Solid Waste Committee, previously expressed support for plans to charge users for water consumption, with those fees financing the preservation of open space, farm lands, and historic sites.

Those plans have changed. Lawmakers are now reluctant to impose water fees on residents and businesses during the current recession when many municipalities and local governments face property tax increases.

At a special joint hearing on April 16 to address the GSPT's funding, McKeon said that while he prefers implementing a dedicated revenue stream, the state will need to issue bonds in order to support the trust in the near term. Officials can then look for a permanent source of funding when economic conditions improve, he said.

Conversely, interest groups focused on preserving parks, forests, and historical landmarks believe a permanent funding plan would avoid "ballot fatigue" as New Jersey voters may grow tired of signing off on open space borrowing every other year.

"We're concerned that we cannot go through a system of bond and bust, where every couple of years we do a bond," Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said at the April 16 meeting. "We run out of money, we panic, we come up with a small bond again or a medium-size bond and then we panic again. We bonded two years ago and that was a mistake. We should have pushed for the long-term solution at that point."

New Jersey has $32 billion of outstanding debt and its high debt levels may deter voters from approving future bond referendums. During the 2007 general election, voters passed $200 million of bonding for the trust by 54% to 46%, with 98,535 more votes in favor of the borrowing. Open space initiatives tend to be more popular with voters and gain wider margins.

In addition, voters that same year rejected $450 million of borrowing for stem cell research by a margin of 53% to 47%.

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