N.J. voters approve open space, bail amendments

New Jersey voters approved two amendments to the state constitution Tuesday, supporting measures to dedicate funding for open space and eliminate the right to bail for certain defendants.

The open-space amendment, which Gov. Christie opposed, requires the state to set aside a portion of corporation business tax revenues for land preservation. New Jersey residents last voted to fund open space through a bond referendum in 2009.

The bail amendment, which is to take effect in 2017, will allow judges to detain defendants before trial without any option of release.

Previously, criminal defendants could win release from jail before trial by posting bail. Under the amendment, judges can deny bail based on concerns that a defendant will not return to court; will pose a threat to public safety; or will attempt to obstruct justice.

The amendment cleared the Legislature in August, when lawmakers also passed a companion bill - signed by Gov. Christie - requiring the state to create a risk-based system to be consulted by judges in determining whether defendants should be detained or released before trial.

Thirteen other states use such systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

If judges determine that defendants do not pose a risk to the public or the justice system, they can be released from jail without having to post bail. This was meant to address concerns that some defendants are detained simply because they are poor.

The other amendment approved by voters Tuesday dedicates business tax revenues for open space programs. Currently, 4 percent of business tax revenues go toward environmental programs for water and site remediation.

The amendment requires the state to reallocate that money to the preservation of open space, farmland, and historic properties. In 2019, the dedicated portion of tax revenues will increase to 6 percent.

At that level, the state will spend $117 million annually on open space, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

Critics of the amendment, such as the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, argued that the money would be better spent on transportation needs and the troubled public employee pension system. The liberal-leaning New Jersey Policy Perspective called the funding mechanism "financially irresponsible."

The amendment is set to take effect in July.


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@AndrewSeidman