How Wisniewski’s Transportation Funding Proposal Could Be a Gain for Sweeney

Wisniewski is sponsoring a bill to end the current standstill over funding New Jersey's transportation infrastructure.

Wisniewski is sponsoring a bill to end the current standstill over funding New Jersey’s transportation infrastructure.

A New Jersey assemblyman’s bill to authorize more borrowing to fund the state’s nearly insolvent Transportation Trust Fund is drawing praise, criticism and predictions that State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) will benefit from the proposal if it succeeds. Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19) unveiled his plan to allow the state to cover the TTF’s debts with $3.2 billion in new bonds over the next few years.

On top of ending the work stoppages on road and bridge work throughout the state, that step would help Wisniewski and Sweeney’s rumored gubernatorial ambitions by taking the TTF off the table during the primary next June. Wisniewski called the bill an attempt to create a stopgap solution until the legislature can agree on a way to offset the gas tax hike that would otherwise provide the funding.

“Borrowing money is not my preference, but unfortunately we have no choice to do so while we wait for the next governor, who unlike our current one will hopefully be a rational person who puts the public interest above politics,” Wisniewski wrote in a statement. “I’ve long advocated for a responsible transportation funding, but we’ve waited too long for an agreement and I’ve opposed the plans that have been proposed.”

Sweeney and a coalition of Senate Democrats support pairing the hike with a phase-out of the estate tax, while Governor Chris Christie favors a plan to offset the tax with a costlier sales tax reduction. Work on a compromise ground to a halt in June.

Seton Hall University political scientist Matt Hale said he doubts Christie will embrace the new proposal. Borrowing that money, even on a short-term basis, could impact the state’s already dismal credit rating for its risk of default on public pensions.

“It certainly helps Sweeney,” Hale said.

“I’m not sure Christie would go for it, because it really does just kick the can down the road,” he said. “Any time there’s more debt in New Jersey, it hurts the credit rating. I don’t know if it’s enough to move the needle, but it’s not a good thing when you’re looking at debt ratios.”

Hale added that the bill would benefit Sweeney by taking care of the TTF until Christie is out of office, and said that Wisniewski’s likely gubernatorial bid could benefit Sweeney’s by cutting into North Jersey hopefuls’ regional territory if the Senate President does choose to run. The Democrats will be spoiled for choice with U.S. Ambassador Phil Murphy already campaigning, and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop also likely to run.

“If Wisniewski gets Middlesex County’s line, that’s a big deal. If he takes that away from Fulop or Murphy, that’s going to help Sweeney quite a bit.”

Wisniewski running at all would help Sweeney in its own way: in a five-person race including State Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20), who is expected to announce his candidacy at the end of the month, it would take less than a quarter of the vote to seal the nomination.

Elsewhere, reactions to Wisniewski’s borrowing plan were mixed. Liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective praised the bill for potentially avoiding the budget holes that would accompany either of the earlier proposals.

“While this is not the long-term solution we’ve advocated for and New Jersey badly needs, this temporary fix preserves transportation funding and puts people back to work across the state,” the group’s Gordon MacInnes wrote in a statement. “And, crucially, it does so without endangering the state’s future by blowing a hole of between $900 million and $1.8 billion a year in the state budget, as do the two proposals earlier approved by the Senate and Assembly. It is terribly short of perfect, but it appears to be the only responsible solution available.”

Others were not so kind. Forward NJ, a PAC that has agitated for a long-term transportation funding solution, said that authorizing more borrowing would “derail the ongoing conversations regarding the viable options currently on the table.”

“Borrowing and short-term solutions are exactly the kinds of thinking that created this TTF crisis in the first place,” the group’s Tom Bracken wrote. “The Governor, Senate President and Speaker are meeting and talking real solutions. We are hopeful that these discussions will lead to a long-term sustainable solution, in the near term, as this coalition has advocated for over the past two years.”