The May 7 editorial chastised the Christie administration for what it referred to as a "bait and switch" regarding the administration's budgeting some of the open space acquisition funding authorized last year to pay salaries of park workers. On the surface this seems like a reasonable gripe.
But when one digs further it becomes evident that the real offense wasn't committed by the administration. It was committed by the legislative sponsors of the initiative authorizing the referendum in the first place.
In fact, if we are going to be honest, the problem is all of us. For decades we've been spending money we don't have on lots of great-sounding things — from open space acquisition, to educational initiatives, to promises made to our public employees.
Our political leaders of both parties have been all too happy to abdicate their responsibility to tell the truth (which would entail their explaining that we simply can't afford all the wonderful things we might want) in exchange for votes. Those would be our votes — the ones we have been happy to deliver to those promising us we can have all the things we want — despite the fact that we should know better. These are the actions that, shovelful by shovelful, have dug the deep budgetary hole in which we now find ourselves.
The first try at an open space funding idea floated by the legislative sponsors was to redirect "already collected sales tax." This was simply rhetorical and mathematical sleight-of-hand since every penny of the sales tax was already dedicated to other areas of the budget. The legislative sponsors simply didn't have the guts to either make the legitimate hard choices that would be required to fund open space — or say "no, sorry, we simply can't afford it." This first effort was derailed by an encouragingly bipartisan group of us who wouldn't tolerate such blatant pandering.
The revised effort seemed more responsible — on the surface. It was to be funded by redirecting money from completed or less-important environmental priorities. I heard this both from bill supporters and representatives of the environmental community. But upon digging further, it became evident that the supposed funding adjustments were a sham. It turns out that this was the real bait-and-switch. The bill sponsors knew that the programs that would be defunded couldn't, shouldn't and wouldn't be. They designed the legislation to back the administration into a corner. Would the administration defund essential Barnegat Bay water quality funding?
This directly from the recent Press story about the cuts the referendum sponsors put forward:
For example, money dedicated for watershed management and monitoring, such as testing water quality in Barnegat Bay and monitoring shellfish waters, streams and aquifers, drops from $16 million under the old formula to $5.6 million in the coming year. The dedication for staffing cleanup of polluted sites overseen by the DEP drops from $9.6 million to zero.
The new budget puts general taxpayer funds toward those items, to make up for the losses. But the DEP isn't getting extra money, so it offsets those increases by cutting general taxpayer support for parks and shifting that cost to the corporate-tax money. That helps balance the DEP's budget, but does so by reducing the money available to buy new fields, farms or historic sites.
"We had to make some tough choices moving this money around to keep ... publicly funded cleanups alive and well. That would have killed that program essentially, crippled it dramatically," DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said.
The referendum bill supporters knew the end result would be messy. And they didn't have any real answers as to how to pay for open space acquisition, as good a cause as it might be. But they were desperate to pander to those clamoring for a solution. So they punted.
They designed the referendum to make it appear as if they tackled the funding issue when in reality they were leaving it to the governor to magically "find a way" (the three-word mantra of gutless politicians) to come up with the non-existent funds. Those who don't like the administration's solution should at least be honest and place blame where it really belongs — the legislators who came up with the non-solution solution and then sold it to voters as if they really accomplished something.