State officials, including Gov. Phil Murphy, are considering a new fee on prepaid cellular phones as a way to boost funding for digital upgrades of the 911 emergency response systems.

A year ago, then-Gov. Chris Christie proposed imposing a 90-cent fee on the purchase of prepaid wireless phones, the same as the monthly fee charged on landline and monthly cell phone subscribers.

It didn’t go anywhere in the Legislature then, but Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, sponsors the bill now. It was scheduled for a vote Thursday in the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee, which she chairs, but the meeting was cancelled due to the impact of the snowstorm.

“That’s additional revenue,” Huttle said. “We have not imposed any fees on these prepaid wireless phones right now, and I think that certainly it’s something to tap into since prepaid cell phones could generate millions of dollars in revenue.”

The Christie administration’s estimate a year ago was $13 million. And it appears Murphy is including that fee in his budget blueprint for fiscal 2019, as the revenue forecast counts on an extra $13 million through the telephone assessment.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Jennifer Sciortino confirmed via email Thursday that the budget includes a fee on wireless phones, based on the same concept as the version proposed last year. She didn't say specifically that the fee would be 90 cents.

Prepaid wireless phones used to be marketed primarily to younger customers and those with lower incomes who had no credit or bad credit, though in recent years they’ve become more popular across more income levels for flexibility, privacy and cost-cutting reasons.

Since 2005, the state has imposed a 90-cent a month fee on landline and monthly cell-phone bills, ostensibly to pay for upgrades of the 911 system. It generates more than $120 million a year – but most of that winds up diverted to other emergency response costs, primarily State Police operations.

At Thursday’s now-cancelled hearing, the Assembly committee planned to take up a bill requiring that at least 10 percent of the money be spent specifically on upgrades and maintenance of 911 public safety answering point technology, including automatic location identification technology.

“Seconds matter in these 911 emergency calls, so anything we can do to upgrade and meet these changing environments is a number one priority for the safety of our residents,” Huttle said.

“In the past we haven’t had anything that was supposed to go to the 911 services. So we will start at 10 percent,” she said. “Obviously we need to invest.”

Another bill that was due to be considered would require emergency service facilities to be equipped with Next Generation 911 systems that can handle incoming photos, videos and text messages.

The legislation would also make texting the 911 emergency system without the purpose of reporting a real emergency a fourth-degree crime.


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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