Thursday, April 8, 2010

Highlands Low on the Budgetary Totem Pole

By Jon Lindenauer

For anyone who is not familiar with the New Jersey Highlands, it is a territory in northeastern New Jersey that stretches from the Delaware River nearly to the Hudson River. The area is protected by the Highlands Water and Planning Protection Act, a law passed by the state of New Jersey in 2004 to safeguard the current and ongoing development of the area under the supervision of the Department of Environmental Protection’s. In addition to these protection efforts, the New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council – otherwise known simply as the “Highlands Council” – approved the Highlands Regional Master Plan in July 2008, which went into effect in September 2008.

The New Jersey Highlands Regional Master Plan can best be understood as – based on the objectives mentioned in the official online description of the plan – a project with the intent of restoring and enhancing the quality and availability of critical resources in the NJ Highlands region. Ideally, the restoration and enhancement of the region would be maximized by the approval of the plan in its entirety, but having the project realized to its full potential is now uncertain in light of recent developments. Unfortunately, it seems that the plan is now facing the strain of what is widely considered to be a lackluster economy, unfit for undertaking major costly environmental venture.

According to a Star Ledger article in February titled “N.J. Assemblyman McKeon blasts Gov. Christie on freezing Highlands funding,” Governor Chris Christie froze over $18.5 million of the Highland Regional Master Plan budget – of the $30 million total budget – as part of a major financially restructuring effort to offset the state $2.2 billion deficit. Additionally, the article quoted State Assemblyman John Mckeon who revealed that $13.2 million of the Highlands Regional Master Plan budget was “raided” in an attempt to stabilize the state taxes. The story went on to note that the budget would be unfrozen on June 30 and be “in reserve” until then.

The Highlands Regional Master Plan budget shrinking from $30 million to $16.8 million will undoubtedly have a tremendously damaging impact on the plan’s prospective effectiveness. Moreover, this is not the only criteria of environmental protection that Governor Christie has recently chosen for fund slashing. Other environmental groups and divisions Christie has cut funding for include $1.7 million for state parks, $500,000 for the Pinelands Commission and – coincidentally – $9 million that was delegated to aid for New Jersey’s Department for Environmental Protection, the division overseeing the law that protects the Highlands. Judging by the trend of other environmental factions that have been cast to the wayside by Governor Christie, unless there is a dramatic change in the overall economy that causes the deficit to miraculously lessen, there is little chance the Highlands Regional Master Plan will get the full $30 million originally granted by the state. This is not to say that Christie does not care for environmental issues, but evidently there are other monetary concerns that take priority.

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