Deadline looms for Transportation Trust Fund fix

 July 1 is coming.

At the Statehouse, the month of June typically features a flurry of debate, negotiations and deal making on the budget and other legislative priorities before the current fiscal year ends. But the next few weeks could be even noisier than usual, as Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers wrestle with the budget as well as the impending insolvency of the Transportation Trust Fund.

The fund is the state's chief mechanism for financing highway and bridge repairs and mass transit improvements, but is overburdened with debt and in need of new revenues.

As of July 1, all of its incoming revenues will be devoted to paying off current debt, and come August, there will be no money left to pay for either existing or new projects.

Transportation and business advocates have equated that to an economic Armageddon for a state that relies heavily on moving goods and services, but months have lapsed without lawmakers reaching a deal to replenish the all-important fund.

Now less than 30 days remain.

Advocates pushing for a fix say lawmakers no longer have time to delay and must act this month.

"It is both shameful and dangerous that some of our leaders have allowed such a critical issue to come down to the wire, putting our economy and safety in the balance,” said Greg Lalevee, a union leader and chairman of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative. “The good news is that there are a few state leaders who understand the urgency of passing a solution before July 1, but they need others to stand up and be counted.”

The trust fund receives most of its revenue from the state's comparatively low 14.5-cent gasoline tax, and most of the talk in the Statehouse has centered on raising that tax to provide more revenue.

But raising the gas tax has proved to be consistently unpopular in public opinion polls, and Christie has insisted that any gas tax hike be packaged with other tax decreases, a concept he calls "tax fairness."

Democratic lawmakers have put forward several tax decreases that could ultimately be packaged with a gas tax, including the phase-out of the state's estate tax, raising the retirement income tax exemption for residents age 62 and older, creating a charitable tax deduction on state income tax filings and boosting the earned income tax credit.

Those proposed tax cuts are expected to cost the state hundreds of millions in revenues needed to keep the budget in balance, even as a gas tax increase brings in more money for crucial transportation projects.

But exactly how much the gas tax might rise is unknown, as lawmakers have remained mum on that detail, save for saying they hope to raise close to $2 billion in revenue to fund transportation projects and boost transportation aid to New Jersey's counties and towns, which are responsible for the upkeep of the majority of the state's roads and highways.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-11th of Red Bank, said the Democrats will seek a 20- to 40-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, which she claims residents won't stand for.

"I have heard from the residents in my district loud and clear: New Jerseyans are seeking tax relief, not increased taxes," Beck said last month after introducing legislation key to her own alternative plan for replenishing the trust fund without a gas tax increase.

Her plan relies largely on revenues from projected budget growth, some additional borrowing and savings from both public employee benefit reform, and merging the Department of Transportation, New Jersey Turnpike Authority and NJ Transit into one single transportation entity. She also wants to boost traffic fines for drunken driving and texting while driving, and divert additional funds from the state's Clean Energy Fund.

Beck's proposal has drawn praise from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which has launched a campaign against any gas tax increase.

"Our grass-roots support for not increasing the gas tax gets louder and louder each day," said Erica Jedynak, the group's state director. "The public is with us on this issue, and lawmakers should know AFP will continue to use our resources to not only fight the gas tax hike, but to hold them accountable on this issue.”

Labor groups and other advocates have described Beck's plan as unsound due to its reliance on revenue growth and additional borrowing.

"This is not a fiscally sound plan. It is a fairytale at best and a nightmare at worst," Lalevee said.

Meanwhile, Christie has repeatedly said he's waiting for Democratic leaders to unveil their own proposal.

"I understand they're having lots of conversations quietly," he said last month in response to a question from a caller to his monthly radio show "Ask the Governor" on 101.5 FM. "But no one has come forward with a plan publicly or presented a plan to me."

Christie said he expected Democrats would present a plan soon now that the Atlantic City crisis was averted.

"The Legislature can only do one thing at a time," he said.

Democratic lawmakers countered that the governor has traditionally been the one to present a proposal for replenishing the fund.

"It is unprecedented in the history of the TTF for the executive branch to not offer a plan to the Legislature for reauthorization. In fact, when Gov. Christie reauthorized the TTF previously, he did just that," Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said Friday. "It seems odd to me that at this juncture, the administration has refused to even indicate tenets of a plan. That said, I am confident that this will get done, because leaving our transportation infrastructure in a state of disarray is not an option."


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