WILLINGBORO — Assemblymen Herb Conaway and Troy Singleton called out Gov. Chris Christie this week, arguing that the Republican's presidential ambitions have hampered progress on crucial New Jersey issues such as property tax relief and the state's looming transportation funding crisis.
The two Democrats are campaigning for re-election to their 7th Legislative District seats and are being challenged by Republicans Rob Prisco and Bill Conley.
All 80 seats in the Assembly are up for grabs Nov. 3, with Democrats holding a 48-32 majority.
During a Tuesday interview with the Burlington County Times editorial board, Conaway and Singleton criticized Christie for repeatedly blocking legislation approved by the Legislature's Democratic majority that would have improved gun safety, generated money for transportation, and provided property tax relief to overburdened homeowners.
The two cited Christie's repeated vetoes of proposed income tax hikes targeting New Jersey's wealthiest residents. Christie has vetoed the so-called "millionaire's tax" five times since taking office in 2010, most recently this past summer, and he has touted his veto record on the presidential campaign trail.
"I vetoed 400 bills from a crazy liberal Democratic Legislature. Not one of them has been overridden," Christie said last month during the Republican presidential debate. "I’ve vetoed more tax increases than any governor in American history."
Conaway, a practicing physician, said the tax hikes on the wealthy that Christie is so proud of blocking would have boosted property tax rebates for seniors, disabled and low- and middle-income homeowners. More recently, they would have raised additional revenue for the state's chronically underfunded public employee pension system.
"It matters who is in the big seat," Conaway said. "(Christie) vetoed the income tax that would have provided (property tax) relief three or four times. It's an important decision that has had important consequences."
Singleton criticized another Christie veto that blocked the return of $350 million in "energy tax receipts" collected from utilities and energy companies to municipal governments. He vetoed the measure in 2012, saying municipalities should focus on cutting spending rather than seeking more money.
Singleton said the measure had Republican support and would have forced the state government to shrink while providing substantial direct property tax relief.
"The challenge we face is that there's been a lot of great ideas, but if they don't fit the ideas of one individual, it doesn't go anywhere," he said.
The two Democrats also said they were frustrated by the stalled negotiations on replenishing the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which is scheduled to go belly up in July without an influx of new revenue.
The trust fund is the principal mechanism used by the state to finance road and bridge repairs and mass transit improvements.
The most discussed option for replenishing the fund is an increase in the state's gasoline tax, but some lawmakers have resisted the move or insisted that the increase be offset by reductions in other state taxes, such as the inheritance and estate taxes.
Christie, who signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge to oppose and veto any tax increase as part of his presidential campaign, has promised not to support any transportation funding solution without "tax fairness," and has called on Republicans in the Legislature to take a similar stand.
Singleton, a union leader who previously served as former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts' chief of staff, said that solving the transportation funding crisis was paramount and that he would be willing to co-sponsor a gas tax increase, provided the revenue is dedicated solely to transportation infrastructure.
"I think it's that important that I'll put my name on it," he said.
He said he also was willing to discuss changes to the estate and inheritance taxes, but insisted that those talks should not be linked with transportation funding.
"Our transportation system should not be held hostage by political machinations," he said.
Conaway did not commit to supporting a gas tax increase. He cited the need for Christie to take a more proactive role on the issue and negotiate a solution with the Legislature.
Both men said they were wary of the governor's call for additional public employee benefit reforms to keep the pension fund solvent. The plan Christie favors would freeze the existing employee pensions and create a new defined contribution system similar to a 401(k) but under the control of public employee unions.
Conaway, who voted for the 2011 pension reform law that required most public employees to pay more toward their pension and health benefits, said he preferred a "hybrid system" with more certainty than a 401(k) system. He also called for the administration to stop using private firms to manage pension investments, claiming the state could save millions by managing investments "in house."
Singleton said he was willing to discuss further benefit reforms, but that Christie needs to live up to his 2011 commitment to contribute more state money to the pension system. He pointed to the governor's August veto of a Democratic bill to apply $300 million in budget surplus from the previous fiscal year to the pension system, saying the "prepayment" could have generated additional investment returns and garnered goodwill with unions.
In his veto message, Christie called the move an "accounting trick" to support a larger pension payment than the state could afford.
"When you have that sort of pushback, it makes it difficult," Singleton said. "I do believe there's a (pension) solution that will take place with some sort of reform, but it will need to be more collaborative."