Gas Tax Hike Debate Rages On in NJ
Top legislators, policymakers and local officials descended on Trenton Wednesday for the State League of Municipalities 25th Annual Mayors' Legislative Day. There was universal agreement that the nearly-bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) must be replenished, but the debate over where the state will find the money to do that rages on.
"There will need to be a revenue enhancer. Money doesn't grow on trees. If we're going to be serious about fixing the TTF, we're going to have to find additional revenue to put into the TTF," said New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox.
The bare minimum amount of annual revenue that would need to be raised is $1.6 billion, Fox projected. He added that he wished a funding solution was identified sooner rather than later.
A panel discussion with mayors and lawmakers led to more talk about refunding the TTF which is on pace to run out of money for new capital projects on July 1. The most talked about solution is an increase in the gas tax.
"Of course it's going to be some form of tax. It's no free ride," explained state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford). "Is it going to cost money? Of course it is, but nothing in life is free."
Negotiations about replenishing the TTF are ongoing, according to Sweeney. He has been meeting regularly with Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto and Gov. Chris Christie. Neither Sweeney nor Prieto would say what they have been talking about, but both said they are close to an agreement that they will present to Christie.
"I've talked about the dirty word - the 'T' word, the tax word, but we can couple that with other things that we need to get done and hopefully everyone can come to an agreement," said Prieto (D-Secaucus).
The Democratic leaders should not expect agreement from at least one Republican.
"I personally am opposed to a gas tax and our residents are opposed to a gas tax," proclaimed state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank). "More taxation is not an option. I don't think we can just wave our hands in the air and say it has to be a gas tax. I don't think it's acceptable to the people of this state that we implement higher taxes."
There was another point of total agreement at the forum. Everyone who took part said whatever the final funding proposal is, the revenue has to be constitutionally dedicated solely to the TTF.
A pair of Republicans on the panel talked about reworking the state's school funding formula to save upwards of $1 billion that could be dedicated to the TTF, but Democrats rejected the idea and said less education funding is not an option.
A new poll released Thursday by Monmouth University revealed that New Jersey residents are actually split on the idea of an increase in the gas tax.
"Forty-seven percent of the state supports a gas tax hike if it is used for transportation projects, and a bare majority of 52 percent opposes it," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "Those who are strongly opposed to it number 36 percent of the public versus those who are strongly in support of it only being 23 percent."
There is no partisanship on the gas tax increase question. Forty-nine percent of Democrats, 47 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Independent voters said they support the hike to fund transportation projects.
"Seven in 10 say the state has to fund find new revenue to replenish the TTF, but among those who say that we need to look for new revenues, just 19 percent feel that we need to raise taxes in order to do that," Murray explained.
Almost half (47 percent) were convinced that revenue sources other than tax increases are available. Just under half (47 percent) thought that having no funding for transportation projects over the next couple of years would pose a major problem that would harm the state. Another 37 percent saw it as a minor problem that would inconvenience the state and 14 percent say it wouldn't be much of a problem at all.
The survey was conducted by telephone with 805 New Jersey adults from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, 2015 and has a margin of error of + 3.5 percent.