TRENTON — New Jersey’s crowded 2017 election ballot is already taking shape, as lawmakers voted Monday to propose amending the state constitution to block settlements or awards from environmental lawsuits from being used to balance the state budget.

Seventy percent of lawmakers voted for the proposal, surprising even the plan’s most ardent supporters by easily clearing the 60 percent hurdle needed to place questions on the ballot with a single vote by the Senate and Assembly.

“This really is a necessary step to keep Trenton’s hands off of this money and make sure that polluters who have polluted a community, that money goes back to restore the areas where the pollution occurred,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

“It’s needed because so many communities in New Jersey have been victimized twice,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Once by a chemical spill or discharge and second by the Christie administration stealing the money to balance the budget.”

“That’s why this is important, because we’re saying: Enough. No more stealing,” Tittel said. “Put the money where it’s supposed to go, into helping those communities and helping to restore and fix the environment instead of just plugging holes in the budget.”

Activist groups pushed lawmakers for the proposal after the bulk of the settlements received from companies that had polluted the Passaic River and from ExxonMobil for damages to the Arthur Kill and other locations were diverted into the state’s general fund.

Five Republicans joined 23 Democrats in voting for the bill in the Senate, where the bill passed 28-8: Diane Allen, Christopher "Kip" Bateman, Jennifer Beck, Tom Kean and Robert Singer.

Seven Republicans joined 49 Democrats in voting for the bill in the Assembly, where the bill passed 56-18, with three voting to abstain: Chris Brown, Robert Clifton, Ronald Dancer, BettyLou DeCroce, Amy Handlin, Sean Kean and Holly Schepisi.

“There’s a lot of noise around some of these environmental issues, especially with things that are happening in Washington, D.C.,” Potosnak said. “But here in New Jersey we’ve seen time and again, and yesterday was a great indication, that Republicans can work with Democrats and protect the environment. And the natural resource damages are not going to be stolen by Trenton away from communities that were polluted.”

Last year, the plan had passed in the Senate, 27-12, but didn’t get a hearing in the Assembly.

Of course, putting the question on the ballot doesn’t guarantee its passage.

This year, New Jersey voters rejected a proposal for North Jersey casinos by the largest margin in the state’s history. A second question, proposing to dedicate gas-tax revenues to transportation, passed narrowly.

Tittel said the question would solve one of the things that frustrates people about state government: shifting money away from its original purpose.

“Voting yes is actually voting no on stealing the money. Voting yes stands up for the environment and cleaning up the communities,” Tittel said.

“When they’re presented with the facts, voters do the right thing,” Potosnak said. “And communities that have seen pollution, it makes sense to make sure they’re restored and they can have use once again of the recreational places.”

The question on the ballot is going to read: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to dedicate all moneys collected by the State relating to natural resource damages in cases of contamination of the environment?  The moneys would have to be used to repair, restore, replace, or preserve the State’s natural resources.  The moneys may also be used to pay legal or other costs incurred by the State in pursuing its claims.”

The interpretative statement will read: “This amendment would dedicate moneys collected by the State relating to natural resource damages through settlements or awards for legal claims based on environmental contamination.  These moneys would be dedicated to repair, replace, or restore damaged natural resources, or to preserve the State’s natural resources.  The moneys would be spent in an area as close as possible to the geographical area in which the damage occurred.  The moneys could also be used to pay for the State’s legal or other costs in pursuing the claims.  Currently, these moneys may be used for any State purpose.”

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