Public Question #1

On Tuesday, November 3, General Elections will take place in New Jersey. This election is particularly important because voters will choose the next governor. There has been much coverage about the campaigns of Gov. Jon Corzine (Democrat) and Chris Christie (Republican), even drawing national attention. President Obama, for example, has already appeared twice for Corzine, with a third visit planned for Camden and Newark.

[UPDATE #1: Obama goes to NJ for final pitch of '09 elections.]

[UPDATE #2: Obama says NJ governor is key to his own agenda.]

[UPDATE #3: Handful of elections shed light on US politics.]

Also appearing on the ballot is a Public Question that, to my knowledge, has received much less coverage. In a nutshell, this ballot initiative asks voters either to approve or reject $400 million in state funding for the New Jersey Green Acres Program. Seeing the number $400,000,000 and knowing nothing about this program, I wanted to find out more.

I found paltry information about the public debate over this. Unsurprisingly, according to one side New Jersey must devote finances to sustain and develop the State's ecology. Predictably, according to the other side allocating $400 million is fiscally irresponsible. Needless to say I kept searching.

Eventually I found the web site for the Green Acres Program. Established by N.J.S.A. 13:8C-24, this Office works with municipalities and non-profits by providing funds to acquire lands for public recreation and conservation. The Garden State, it turns out, still has 70% of the land either preserved or undeveloped. Comprised of 4.8 million acres, about 1.3 million acres are permanently preserved, 1.4 million acres are developed, and 2.1 million acres are undeveloped.

The statute that created this Office also requires Green Acres to adopt application procedures for grants and loans and develop criteria and policies for evaluating and ranking projects, which appear in N.J.A.C. 7:36-1.1 to -21.4. This achieves two purposes. First, and most obviously, applicants must follow these rules either for either loans or for grants, providing them with the objective criteria that Green Acres will consider. Second, this bolsters the appearance of regularity in government conduct. The agency could hardly be faulted for following its own administratively approved rules.

Indeed, I witnessd the evolution of one Green Acres project, Johnson Park. This park is between the Rutgers-Camden campus and the Delaware River. Interestingly, Johnson Park features a statue of Peter Pan that is strikingly similar to one in London's Kensington Gardens.

The Green Acres web site describes the Office's four divisions: (1) State Park & Open Space Acquisition, (2) Local Governments and Nonprofit Funding, (3) Stewardship - Keeping It Green, and (4) Planning & Information Management.

As I began to understand more about Green Acres, I wondered why Green Acres relies on public funding instead of private sector activities to raise capital. Speaking engagements, for example, can provide a revenue stream. I wondered whether Green Acres, since its inception, had developed or implemented any innovative solutions in its field. There might be audiences that would like to know about Green Acres' history and achievements. On a more aggressive scale, given the importance of environmentalism nowadays, why does Green Acres not provide environmental consulting services to New Jersey corporations? Instead of turning to voters for funding approval, Green Acres could take at least partial responsibility for its budget.

One objection, however, is this could lead to appearances of impropriety based on business relations with a government office. This is an understandable concern where agreements involving land use are concerned, especially because New Jersey government has a less-than-squeaky-clean reputation. For that matter, the same regulations that set forth the application procedures for municipalities and non-profits provide, "These rules shall be construed liberally to effectuate the purposes and objectives of the Green Acres laws." N.J.A.C. 7:36-1.3 (emphasis added). On the one hand, this probably allows Green Acres to foster and maintain positive relations with applicants and approved entities. It is conceivable, however, that this discretion could undercut the regularity of conduct mentioned above. As long as that possibility exists, it seems Green Acres might have to refrain from engaging in private sector activities to raise capital, and instead rely on voters.

Whether to vote "yes" or "no" on November 3 is a personal decision. Even so, this research provided me with a better understanding about New Jersey and some of the issues involved in Public Question #1.