NJ Lawmakers on Gas-Tax Ballot Question: Don’t Trust Us? Vote Yes!
Proponents for a ballot question dedicating all revenues from the recently raised gas tax toward transportation infrastructure are stepping up advocacy efforts ahead of an Election Day decision by voters.
A group called Forward New Jersey raised more than $840,000 for an advertising campaign in the last two weeks. Mailers urging a "yes" vote were sent by the New Jersey Republican State Committee. And a phalanx of advocacy groups held a Statehouse news conference Thursday to push back against critics.
Among the arguments made by the group, which included three lawmakers who were central to developing the Transportation Trust Fund plan enacted last month: If you don’t trust Trenton, you really ought to vote for the ballot question, not against it.
“This vote ‘yes’ is the most powerful voting tool that our taxpayers have, and it is the most powerful vote that can be cast on Tuesday,” said Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
“You vote for elected officials based on promises that you hope they will keep,” she said. “When you vote yes to Ballot Question No. 2 to constitutionally dedicate your hard earned dollars for transportation purposes, it is a guarantee that those elected officials will spend it the way they promised they will. That is an extremely powerful tool that by voting ‘no,’ you’re voting that away.”
There’s nothing controversial or confusing about it, said Cathleen Lewis, director of public affairs and government relations for AAA New Jersey.
“It does exactly what it says it will do. It puts the gas tax revenue into a lockbox so that it can only be used to make our roads safer and reduce congestion,” Lewis said. “That's it. There's no hidden agenda. There's a desire to make sure, no offense to the legislators that are here, but that Trenton can't use that money to plug other budget holes.”
When the lawmakers spoke, it was reminiscent of problem gamblers telling a casino not to admit them onto the gaming floor. If the money isn’t locked up, someone’s likely to divert it.
“It should be put in the lockbox so that elected officials from both sides of the aisle cannot get cute, quite frankly, and try to use it for other unintended purposes,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.
“If there’s lack of trust, then the answer is: Yes, you need to vote for this,” Prieto said, calling the opposition to the ballot question because of anger about the tax hike “almost ridiculous.”
“That's already the law. That's not coming off. But you voting ‘no’ on this, that lack of trust that you're talking about it's actually being amplified. Now you're leaving it open to be used for anything in the future,” said Prieto, who said it’s better to dedicate the money than risk somebody using it “to buy drapes and decorate the Statehouse.”
Advocates for the ballot question said opponents are making some false suggestions:
- The gas tax hike won’t be revisited. “The increase is now law. Anybody who is insinuating that by voting ‘no’ on Ballot Question 2 can readdress the 23-cent gas tax is absolutely incorrect,” said Tom Bracken, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer.
- The state will have alternate paths to borrow for transportation projects, even if gas tax revenues aren’t dedicated. Prieto said the Treasury Department has assured him “voting ‘no,’ on it does not derail us” from borrowing, though amended legislation would be needed. Added Gerald Keenan, executive vice president of the New Jersey Alliance for Action: “If you're talking about stopping bonding by voting against Question No. 2, you're dead wrong.”
- The state publishes one- and five-year construction plans twice a year, so people can find out what projects are on the horizon. “And if there are elected officials that don't know that this exists, and if there are people out there pontificating that this doesn't exist, you have to question every single thing that they say,” Chernetz said.
While speakers expressed frustration, they rarely or indirectly mentioned the causes of their agita.
Sarlo said “shame on all my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, shame on the radio stations like 101.5.” He also indicated the issue has struck a chord with the public, noting that he’s alarmed that many people have asked him on the campaign trail about the ballot question.
Prieto appeared to indirectly criticize Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who has come out against the ballot question. The prospective candidate for the Republican nomination for governor says the gas tax may reach 50 cents a gallon, if gas sales drop, because the TTF law guarantees the state a level amount of funding, so it can repay its borrowing.
“For months we were in a stoppage. Where were they talking about that: ‘Oh, look at this, Look what they're trying to do.’ That wasn't talked about,” Prieto said. “They’re using this as a vehicle now to get some soundbites for whatever reason, whether they’re political, different aspirations – again, I tell you ask those questions. This has nothing to do with it. Where were they the last three months when people were out of work? So you know what? I question their integrity.”
Guadagno later tweeted a link to an earlier version of this story with her response:
Bracken said it’s important that the question is passed because it would dedicate all the gas-tax revenues to infrastructure – “as opposed to what's happened for the last 20 years, where the vast majority if not all the money has been diverted from our infrastructure,” he said.
That’s not accurate. In 1997 and 1998, 7 cents of the 14.5-cent gas tax was dedicated to the TTF. That rose to 8 cents in 1999 and 9 cents in 2000. That rose to around 11 cents in 2001 and 13 cents in 2002, then went to 14.5 cents in 2007. Only a small amount of diesel taxes haven’t gone to the TTF recently.
Also, starting in 2002, sales tax revenues begun being put into the fund. At least $200 million a year is required to go toward the TTF.
That sales tax dedication means that roughly one-third of the money from the higher gas tax will be devoted to repaying old debts – about 7 cents, rather than 11 cents, as Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, had estimated. His calculation would have reduced the sales-tax shift to nothing, instead of $200 million.
Though the plan relies on $12 billion in borrowing, roughly one-fourth of the money spent over the eight-year program would come directly from gas taxes, rather than borrowing – around $500 million a year. It’s a step in the right direction, Oroho said.
“We have a long way to work out. We've had what I would refer to, and I didn't expect to find this, but a debt Ponzi scheme for decades, with the New Jersey taxpayer as the victim. It's been a debt, spend and hide for decades,” Oroho said. “We now finally have the legislative leadership and an administration, a governor, with the fortitude to say, ‘Enough. Let's fix it.’”
Borrowing is a standard way to pay for infrastructure projects that will last for decades, Bracken said. He likened it to taking out a mortgage to buy a home, then gradually repaying it each month.
“That's what we're doing here; it's called project financing,” Bracken said. “Money has to be borrowed. You can't pay for the projects were talking about by the monthly collection of the gas tax. You have to have money to pay for the projects.”
To pay for a $2 billion a year transportation program without borrowing would require a gas tax of 40 cents a gallon, not counting the amount needed to cover existing debt, which is around 21.5 cents.