In recent weeks U.S. 1 has received several opinion pieces from a variety of advocacy groups regarding the public questions that will be on the ballot in the Tuesday, November 6, election. Following are the opinions, accompanied by an analysis of the pros and cons of each question provided by the League of Women Voters.

Question No. 1:

Property Tax Relief

This question concerns the amendment of Article VII, Section I of the state constitution, to provide for the annual dedication and annual appropriation of an amount equal to the annual revenue derived from a tax rate of 1 percent imposed under the New Jersey Sales and Use Tax, exclusively for the purpose of property tax reform.

Background from the League of Women Voters: The sales tax increased from 6 to 7 cents in July of 2006. This question does not change that increase. In November of 2006 the electorate approved the dedication of one-half of that penny increase to property tax reform. That dedication provided about $650 million of sales tax income placed in a special account in the Property Tax Relief Fund.

The 2007 question asks voters to dedicate the remaining one-half cent increase of the state sales tax for property tax reform with this money being placed in the same Property Tax Reform Account. If approved the total dedication of sales tax income for fiscal year 2008 is estimated at $1.3 billion, if defeated the dedication of sales tax income remains at the one half cent level, estimated for fiscal year 2008 at $650 million.

Reasons to vote yes: Property taxes are very high relative to other taxes in New Jersey. This dedication is a step toward providing relief to property tax payers.

Dedication of tax revenue prevents it from being used for general spending and insures its availability for the intended purpose. A constitutional dedication can only be changed by the voters.

Reasons to vote no: Constitutionally dedicating taxes reduces the flexibility of the state to direct revenues to changing priorities.

The one penny increase in the sales tax passed in 2006 was to provide additional money to help balance the budget. Dedicating this increase leaves the state budget under funded which will force budget cuts or borrowing to fund programs not defined for use by the property tax relief fund.

Vote Yes on No. 1,

Say Seniors & Towns

The League of Municipalities represents all of New Jersey’s 566 cities, towns, townships, boroughs, and villages, and AARP-NJ represents over 1.3 million citizens.

“The constitutional dedication will require all future governors to spend one-seventh of total sales tax proceeds for property tax relief purposes, each and every year,” says League president David DelVecchio, mayor of Lambertville.

“The need for permanent property tax relief is so important that we want to make absolutely sure this ballot question passes,” says AARP state president Sy Larson. “The dedication of another half-penny share of the sales tax may not sound like a lot to some people, but for individuals with low or fixed incomes, property taxes cut into their food and shelter and undermine their standard of living.”

Says Assembly speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr.: “Public Question No. 1 is the keystone for property tax relief permanency. A constitutional dedication of sales tax revenue for property tax relief ensures that property tax relief programs like this year’s rebates are shielded from the short-sighted whims of future politicians.”

Citing past instances of legislatures diverting local property tax relief funds to other state priorities, Mayor DelVecchio says. “We know that there are those who support property tax relief, but who are uncomfortable with constitutional dedication. We understand that. We only hope that they understand why municipal officials are uncomfortable without constitutional dedication. We fully support Public Question No. 1. We hope that the voters seize this opportunity to advance the cause of property tax relief.”

One year ago New Jersey voters were asked to support a public question that provided for the constitutional dedication of one-half cent of the sales tax revenue to property tax relief. We are grateful that the legislature gave the voters that opportunity, and we are not surprised that the voters made the best of it. On November 6 Public Question No. 1 will give voters a new opportunity to permanently provide more money to fight higher property taxes.

While by no means a “silver bullet” to end New Jersey’s property tax nightmare, voter approval of Public Question No. 1 will be another strong, solid step in the right direction.

— William G. Dressel Jr.

Dressel is executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

Question No. 2:

Stem Cell Research

New Jersey’s Stem Cell Research Bond Act would authorize the state to issue bonds in the amount of $450 million for grants to fund “stem cell research projects,” as defined in the act, at institutions of higher education and other entities in the state conducting scientific and medical research.

Background from the League of Women Voters: If approved this question allows the state to borrow $450 million in general obligation bonds if sufficient recurring revenues are identified to pay the debt. These bonds may have a 35-year maturity date and may be subject to redemption prior to maturity. No more than $45 million a year may be awarded as research grants to higher education or other state entities conducting research on stem cells. Any unused grant capacity in a given year will carry over to subsequent years.

Any for-profit company must be collaborating with a New Jersey-based nonprofit institution to be eligible for a grant. Grants will be awarded by the state Commission on Science and Technology with input from an independent research review panel and independent ethics panel. If a research institute realizes a financial gain associated with a grant funded project, payment to the Stem Cell Research Fund, representing a reasonable return on the grant, is required.

Reasons to vote yes: Stem cell research may provide the answers to many medically devastating diseases and injuries.

Investment in research will help New Jersey maintain a competitive position in this field, provide economic opportunity in the state and spur new business ventures.

The funding will be distributed based on scientific merit of projects as judged by two independent review panels.

To provide fiscal responsibility the act requires that the state treasurer certify annually that sufficient recurring revenues are available to meet the costs.

Reasons to vote no: With $33.7 billion in state debt, which costs $3 billion in interest and principal payments each year, this is not the time to add more debt. Finding a way to budget this expenditure, without the accompanying interest payments on debt, would be more fiscally responsible.

Question No. 3:

Land Preservation

The “Green Acres, Farmland, Blue Acres, and Historic Preservation Bond Act” would authorize the state to issue bonds in the amount of $200 million to provide moneys for (1.) the acquisition and development of lands for recreation and conservation purposes, (2.) the preservation of farmland for agricultural or horticultural use and production, (3.) the acquisition for recreation and conservation purposes properties in the floodways of the Delaware River, Passaic River, and Raritan River and their tributaries, that are prone to or have incurred flood or storm damage, and (4.) funding historic preservation projects.

Background from the League of Women Voters: If approved this question allows the state to borrow $200 million in general obligation bonds, with principal and interest paid from the state budget.

If approved the bond act allocates $109 million to the Green Acres program for open space and park development, $73 million for farmland preservation, $12 million for the Blue Acres program, and $6 million for historic preservation.

The $109 million for land acquisition and park development provides $45 million for use by the state, $55 million for grants and loans to local governments and $9 million for matching grants to nonprofit organizations.

The Blue Acres land acquisitions in floodways will be recommended by an advisory committee composed of experts in flood management. Any land acquired must be from willing sellers. The bonds issued for historic preservation are for the purpose of providing matching grants to qualifying entities.

Only $1.7 million remains for land acquisition from the bonds authorized in 1998. The remainder must be used to pay down the debt.

Reasons to vote yes: Purchasing land or rights to land for open space preservation is critical to our state’s environment and quality of life. Open space and historic sites also support the tourism industry and the economy of the state.

The state is projected to reach full development within 30 years; we need to continue to preserve open space now.

Reasons to vote no: With $33.7 billion in state debt, which costs $3 billion in interest and principal payments each year, this is not the time to add more debt.

State DEP Says Yes

New Jersey is a diverse state blessed with open space, farmland, and historic properties. We are also a state with a long history of support for preservation of these resources. Since 1961 voters have steadfastly favored funding for open space preservation, allowing New Jersey to develop one of the country’s most successful preservation programs.

This November New Jersey voters will once again be asked to authorize funding for the state’s land preservation programs with Public Question No. 3. If approved, it would authorize the Garden State Preservation Trust to issue up to $200 million in bonds for open space and parks, including the purchase and preservation of flood-prone properties — “Blue Acres” — from willing sellers, as well as historic and farmland preservation projects. This stopgap funding would allow New Jersey to continue these programs while the governor and legislature work to develop a strategy for long-term funding.

As the most densely populated state in the nation, preserving open space is critical to our quality of life. Open space preservation helps protect threatened and endangered species by protecting critical habitats. It protects our water resources by buffering rivers, lakes, and streams and protecting critical recharge areas. And it encourages smart growth by improving the quality of life in our urban and developed suburban areas.

A number of studies indicate that proximity to parks and open space also increases property values. To date New Jersey has permanently preserved over 1.3 million acres, but over 2 million acres, much of it with high natural resource value, remains unprotected and at risk.

As the “Crossroads of the Revolution,” New Jersey has a rich heritage of history that deserves to be preserved. Numerous historic sites are located throughout the state, including battlefields, historic residences, lighthouses, and relics of century old villages. These fascinating and significant historic resources span the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and reflect our state’s diverse past. Passage of this bond act is approved, will ensure present and future generations will be ensured of have the opportunity to experience, understand, and enjoy the landmarks of New Jersey’s role in the birth and development of our great nation.

Flooding has been a chronic problem for too many of our state’s residents. Last year’s Task Force report on recent Delaware River flooding pointed out the need for funds to purchase flood plain properties. Flooding of New Jersey’s waterways has caused loss of life as well as substantial property damage, much of it repetitive loss. Acquisition of these flood-prone areas preserves these lands for recreation and conservation purposes by restoring, enhancing and protecting the water quality and ecosystems of our rivers.

This bond issue, if approved, will also help us respond to the threat of climate change. As temperatures rise and flooding increases, preserving flood plains as open space will avert the worst of the property damage and personal traumas that flooding inflicts. Funding to protect New Jersey’s farms will also allow residents to continue to buy “Jersey Fresh” fruits and vegetables and avoid the greenhouse gas emissions otherwise required to transport such foods from out of state.

Preservation and conservation of open spaces, historical sites, farmland and the acquisition of flood-prone areas will improve the quality of life for millions of New Jersey residents. The success of the Green Acres program can be seen across the state. We must build upon that record of success to ensure not only the quality of our environment, but also the quality of our lives. When we invest in our open spaces and our heritage, we are investing in New Jersey’s future.

— Lisa P. Jackson

Jackson is commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Audobon View: Yes

By authorizing the state to issue $200 million in bonds, the act would provide much-needed funds to keep the state’s open space, farmland and historic preservation programs afloat for one more year and to support the Blue Acres program to purchase flood-prone properties from willing sellers. Eligible lands are either prone to or have already incurred flood or storm damage and are located in the Delaware, Passaic and Raritan river basin floodways.

The Garden State Preservation Trust has funded New Jersey’s preservation programs since 1998 when voters approved a ballot question by a 2 to 1 margin dedicating nearly 10 years of funds for the trust. However, the trust is now running out of money and passage of this ballot question is necessary the state’s preservations efforts going for one more year.

Even with current preservation efforts, New Jersey loses more than 40 acres of open space to development everyday. At this rate, our state is projected to reach full development within 30 years. We must preserve these lands before it is too late to protect our clean drinking water supplies, provide parks for our children, reduce the impact of floods and storms, and keep our communities attractive and safe. Parks and natural areas provide places for hiking, jogging, and other activity, which increases fitness and reduces obesity. These areas also reduce air and water pollution impacts on public health and associated costs for health care and drinking water treatment. Finally, urban parks have been linked to community revitalization through job creation and neighborhood crime reduction.

Passing Question No. 3 will not impose any new taxes, and the funds made available can be paid for with existing revenue. The act allows the state treasurer to issue bonds, which must be paid back within the next 30 years. Bonding, a common method for funding land acquisition and capital improvements, is the most logical and successful way to fund preservation because it takes advantage of current market values by purchasing land now instead of waiting until it is too expensive or already lost to development. New Jersey voters have approved 11 bond measures since 1961 dedicating funds for preservation efforts.

A yes vote will also help stabilize property taxes. The loss of open space and farmland to development results in increased property taxes as municipalities fund new schools, roads and public infrastructure to support this development. According to a recent report by the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, studies show that for every $1.00 collected in taxes, residential development costs between $1.04 and $1.67 in services. These costs are ongoing and generally increase over time.

The acquisition of open space, on the other hand, requires fewer services and costs taxpayers far less over the long term. These areas quickly pay for themselves, providing ongoing savings and substantial environmental and economic benefits to the community, such drinking water protection, public recreation opportunities, critical wildlife habitat, and job creation through eco-tourism.

Passing the act will also significantly strengthen local and regional preservation efforts by providing matching funds for the local dollars collected by over 225 municipalities and all 21 counties for open space and farmland preservation projects. The funds will also be used for statewide preservation efforts that do not involve local money. — Joanna Wolaver

Wolaver is conservation project coordinator, New Jersey Audubon Society and campaign coordinator for the New Jersey – Keep It Green Campaign (www.NJKeepItGreen.org). For information contact Liz Silvernail at lsilvernail@environmentnewjersey.org or 609-394-8155, ext. 307.

Question No. 4:

Voting Rights

An amendment of Article II, Section I, paragraph 6 of the Constitution, agreed to by the Legislature, would revise the current constitutional language concerning denial of the right to vote by deleting the phrase “idiot or insane person” and providing instead that a “person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting” shall not enjoy the right of suffrage.

Background provided by the League of Women Voters: Paragraph 6 currently reads “No idiot or insane person shall enjoy the right of suffrage.” This paragraph operates as an exception to paragraph 3, which states that every citizen of the United States, of the age of 18 years, who is a resident of 30 days of the state and county in which he claims his vote is entitled to vote.

Paragraph 6 retains language from the 1844 constitution that denied the right to vote to an idiot or insane person. In 1976 the Appellate Division of the Superior court of New Jersey declared that the words “idiot” and “insane” do not have a legal meaning. Current case law denies the right to vote only to those individuals with cognitive disabilities who have been determined by a court to not understand the act of voting. This amendment places that language in the constitution, deleting the archaic language of “idiot or insane person.”

Reasons to vote yes: Language is powerful. Needless and stigmatizing language should be eliminated from our constitution and laws.

This amendment acknowledges that individuals with cognitive or emotional disabilities are capable of making decisions in the voting booth. If challenged, any decision to deny suffrage would be made by a court of competent jurisdiction.

Reasons to vote no: Replacing the words “idiot” and “insane person” from the New Jersey Constitution with “a person who lacks the capacity to understanding the act of voting” is subjective. Different judges could apply different factors in making their determination. There should be specific criteria for demonstrating “capacity to understand the act of voting.”

Vote Yes, Says Arc

This question aims to change the current outdated and offensive language that describes citizens with a developmental disability when it comes to voting. The current language in the New Jersey Constitution denies the right of suffrage to any “idiot or insane person.” Those terms do not accurately describe the developmentally disabled in our community.

In New Jersey developmentally disabled individuals have always been legally eligible to register and to vote without challenge in the state. Developmentally disabled individuals are fully capable of making decisions in the voting booth — especially those decisions that may, and can, ultimately affect the rest of their lives. Only individuals who “lack the capacity to understand the act of voting” are denied the rights to vote by a court.

In its place, words would define the standards already set by the courts in the state. New Jersey citizens with developmental disabilities are valued and respected members of society, and deserve similar respect and dignity. Voters are not deciding who does and does not have the right to vote, it is merely a question of changing the language.

New Jersey is one of only six states to continue to use this demeaning language, though seven other states including North Carolina and Pennsylvania, have successfully removed similar language from their constitutions.

Bipartisan leaders in our community who support this constitutional amendment include Bonnie Watson Coleman (Democrat) and Senator Peter Inverso (Republican). Both houses voted unanimously for this change in language. This amendment not only benefits those with developmental disabilities, but our community as a whole. It shows respect for all who currently enjoy the right to vote. Changing this language will not affect or change the rights of individuals to vote in New Jersey elections. It is simply changing the language that describes certain individuals.

— Steven Cook and Dan Antonellis

Cook is executive director and Antonellis chairman of the board of the Arc Mercer Inc., one of the state’s oldest advocacy organizations for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. The Arc also provides support and services to individuals with developmental disabilities and to their families.

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