Gas tax debate heating up before plan even finalized
Democratic legislative leaders are close to a deal to present to Gov. Chris Christie on funding future transportation work.
TRENTON – Participants in New Jersey's gas-tax debate insist a deal will be in hand before the state's transportation fund goes broke.
Mayors at a State League of Municipalities meeting Wednesday witnessed how that won't happen without some partisan battling.
Democrats said taxes, most likely for gasoline, will have to go up to pay for future road and rail improvements. Some Republicans called that unacceptable and said that other options are available, such as cutting aid to some city schools.
Democrats, in turn, said it isn't realistic to fund as much as $2 billion a year in transportation work without finding a way to pay for it.
Transportation Commissioner Jamie Fox says Transportation Trust Fund talks are "on the 10-yard line," with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto close to a plan to bring to Gov. Chris Christie.
Yet the gas-tax debate still could get contentious. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the final agreement is going to require bipartisan support.
"If this is going to be a one-way solution, it'll be no-way, to be perfectly honest with you," Sweeney told reporters.
Prieto, D-Hudson, said an increase of the state's 14.5-cent per gallon gas taxes is part of the solution but not the full answer.
"Everybody understands the necessity, and necessity is what's going to drive this," Prieto said.
Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, said she opposes a higher gas tax and that residents feel the same way, as reflected in public-opinion polls.
"I am not a genius that has a million different solutions, but I do think there are some that we should be certainly pushing and exploring," Beck said, pointing to funding from the federal government or Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"I don't think we can just wave our hands in the air and say it has to be a gas tax," she said. "I don't think it's acceptable to the people of this state that we implement higher taxes."
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, suggested that $1 billion could be diverted from school funding if the state changed the court-mandated funding formula. Prieto said many schools are already underfunded.
"There is no magic fix here," Sweeney said. "There is no magic solution and wish and close your eyes."
Starting in July, all of the $1.2 billion in yearly revenues committed to the state's Transportation Trust Fund will have to be used to pay down $15.6 billion in accumulated debt. A new plan for funding future work will have to be approved.
Sweeney and others are calling for spending to be increased to $2 billion a year, including a doubling of aid to towns and counties.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said that would require $1.25 billion in additional yearly revenues. Borrowing would cover the rest.
"We need new revenue. And as unpleasant as the fact is, the most robust way of raising revenue for transportation is the gas tax," Wisniewski said. "There are lots of other things you can raise, but you have to raise them to incredible levels to even come close to matching the amount of revenue you can raise through a gas tax."
Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp suggested fees be levied on every container that comes through Port Newark and Port Elizabeth.
"There are heavy trucks that use our roadways every day, and they take a pounding on our roadways," Mapp said.
"I think that discussion is on the table to talk about," said Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, R-Morris. "Is it popular? No. Are you right? You probably are."
One of the last speakers at the event was Lake Como Mayor Brian Wilton, who asked for advice about how mayors can best press for a solution.
"If something is done, you have to stand behind the legislators to support them because it's not going to be perfect for either side," Bramnick said.
"If they know you're with them, regardless of the compromise, they're more likely to get behind legislation."
Michael Symons: (609) 984-4336; email@example.com