As negotiations over how to fund the Transportation Trust Fund with a gas tax continue to stall, Governor Chris Christie’s decision to halt all repairs and construction until lawmakers reach a consensus is drawing criticism from Democrats and advocacy groups. The state Assembly and Senate failed to reach a compromise between two bills at the end of June.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), who said earlier this week that he is working to draft a new bill but has not shared its details with the governor’s office yet, called the abrupt work stoppage a mistake. He called for a compromise between the governor’s favored Assembly bill, which would lower the state sales tax instead of phasing out the estate tax under the Senate plan.
The TTF would have had enough money to limp through August.
“He didn’t have to do it so quickly,” Sweeney said of Christie, who issued an executive order immediately after the Senate declined to vote on the Assembly’s bill. “We should be trying to find a solution.”
Sweeney’s Assembly counterpart Vince Prieto (D-32) defended his decision to cut a deal with Christie rather than post the Senate bill. Insider sources have said that the Assembly Democrats did not have the votes to override Christie if he vetoed the estate tax plan.
“The Assembly has acted to fund transportation, keep laborers on the job and boost our economy, and what I’ve made clear is we need a bill the governor will sign because I want this resolved,” Prieto said. “And in case some haven’t realized it by now, a solution that doesn’t involve the Assembly is no solution at all.”
Despite the months Senate sponsors Paul Sarlo (D-36) and Steve Oroho (R-24) spent drumming up support for their estate tax phase-out bill in bid to satisfy Christie’s call for “tax fairness,” Christie said earlier this week that he will not sign off on a phase-out.
Both bills would increase the state’s gas tax by 23 cents a gallon. Business groups and progressive groups alike have criticized the Prieto-Christie plan for costing the state twice as much in lost tax revenue — up to $1.7 billion versus roughly $900 million.
The nonpartisan New Jersey Association of counties weighed in Thursday, calling for a swift compromise.
That organization estimates that county and municipal roads and bridges carry over half the state’s traffic, and repairs to those structures depend on the TTF for $190 million of the roughly $565 million it takes to operate and maintain them. The group’s executive director John Donnadio criticized Christie’s move to halt repairs.
“The unprecedented shutdown of all work funded by the TTF is forcing county officials to cease operations at ongoing projects and delay new shovel ready ones that will cost valuable taxpayer dollars as contractors will undoubtedly seek costly delay claims and remobilization costs for lost time on the job,” Donnadio said.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel called Christie’s decision to halt repairs and construction politically motivated. Christie is being vetted as a potential running mate for Donald Trump, and the stalemate with the Senate could serve as a means to put off a tax hike until after the Republican convention.
“It is Christie’s decision to halt these transportation projects, but clearly Trump’s logic because it is only out of spite,” Tittel said. “This is the time of the year when construction should be at is fullest during the summer months. It is also the when people are traveling for vacation and going to the shore. While our Governor is transitioning with the Trump Campaign, he is causing New Jerseyans to be in gridlock.”