EDITORIAL: Voters’ turn on gas tax

Once Gov. Chris Christie makes it all official, New Jersey will be stuck with a bad deal to raise the gas tax in exchange for some ill-advised tax cuts.

There’s little sense now in bemoaning the series of events that got us here — years of transportation funding neglect and Christie’s image-protecting insistence on tax reduction tradeoffs that will disproportionately benefit the wealthy while blowing a bigger hole in the state’s already crippled budget.

What’s done is done, and the good news is that for the next eight years, the 23-cent-a-gallon bump at the pump will end the uncertainty about transportation funding that the state has allowed to linger for far too long. The agreement will restart hundreds of projects halted because of the funding impasse.

Voters, however, now have an important job to do: Approve November’s ballot question that will constitutionally dedicate gas-tax revenue solely to transportation. This is a critical step because lawmakers absolutely cannot be trusted to spend that money responsibly on their own. Past diversions of Transportation Trust Fund revenue helped create the funding crisis. We hate to imagine how legislators would interpret a rejection of the ballot question.

Lawmakers have a job to do, too. Those who reluctantly approved the compromise already should be considering options to cover budget deficits likely to be created and/or exacerbated by the tax-cut portion of the package. Those reductions include some laudable concessions to seniors and veterans, but also incorporate an eventual elimination of the estate tax, a measure that almost solely helps the rich. The sales tax also will be trimmed slightly, barely helping consumers but collectively draining hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers.

Some Democrats are treating this deal like a kind of starting point, with tweaks and changes to come — especially if Christie is succeeded by a Democrat. Assemblymen Troy Singleton and John Burzichelli already have offered up an idea to create a middle-class tax deduction for motor fuel taxes. The proposal lacked some detail, such as a cost analysis, but it’s worth exploring.

What we don’t want to hear — ever — from any of our lawmakers in rationalizing negative effects from this deal are complaints about anticipated revenues coming up short of expectations. That’s become the default excuse for any failed fiscal policy in New Jersey, and already we have supporters arguing that the estate-tax phase-out will boost tax revenue by keeping more people in the state.

But shortfalls in this case are not only highly predictable, but inevitable. New Jersey faces so many burdens that it never can seem to finance fully — pensions and schools primary among them — that even if the tax cuts do somehow translate into revenue boosts in other areas to compensate, the state still won’t have enough money to meet those goals. So a tax break for the wealthy ultimately will hurt everyone else.

This is tough medicine to swallow. But the treatment isn’t over.

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