NJ lawmakers debate raising gas tax as prices rise at the pump
TRENTON — It could be well into the summer shore season before New Jersey residents and out-of-state drivers have any certainty on whether the state's gas tax is going up to pay for road and bridge work.
Transportation funding is re-emerging as a top issue after weeks of heavy focus in Trenton between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature on the financial problems in Atlantic City.
This week, a key Democratic senator unveiled the framework of a plan he says includes the tax fairness Christie wants, as well as the gas tax hike that Democrats say is necessary.
Gas prices, meanwhile, inched up by a penny since last week.
AAA Mid-Atlantic says the average price of a gallon of regular gas in the state on Friday was $1.98. That's still lower than last year, when motorists were paying of $2.34 per gallon. Analysts say gas prices are not expected to reach las summer's peak price of $2.62 per gallon.
Here's a closer look at the transportation trust fund and what's happening:
Democratic state Senate budget committee Chairman Paul Sarlo announced a plan that would raise the gas tax and increase the fund from $1.6 billion to $2 billion in exchange for slashing the estate and retirement income taxes and establishing a charitable donations exemption.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto didn't rule out the plan and said discussions are continuing. Christie's office has declined to comment.
So far, though, a deal has eluded Christie and Democrats. Separating them is a disagreement over how to pay for the fund. Democrats have said they back raising the state's 14.5-cent fuel tax, which is the second lowest in the country, but haven't coalesced behind a bill to do so. Christie says that every option is on the table, which hints at including a gas tax hike, but also that he won't support a solution without "tax fairness," or lowering other taxes in exchange for hiking the fuel tax.
The issue comes at a time when most residents say they oppose raising the gas tax. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll from March showed that 59 percent of residents oppose raising the gas tax. The poll surveyed 801 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
The debate also comes as Christie enters the second half of his second term, which experts say is when governors begin to contemplate their legacies. That leaves Christie wrestling with how residents will remember him for dealing — or not — with the fund.
Democrats, too, are beginning to jockey to succeed Christie and have a stake in how the fund is paid for. Residents, meanwhile, face pockmarked roads and structurally deficient bridges and prospect of higher gas taxes.
Christie has urged the Democrat-led Assembly to post a bill, because revenue-raising legislation must begin in the lower house. Governors, though, have introduced transportation funding plans in the past. Prieto says any legislation won't get done until he, Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney sit down together to work out a plan. Sarlo told reporters this week his proposal is an effort to strike a deal.
"The only way we're going to be successful here is if it's done collectively, with our Republican counterparts and Assembly Democrats," he said. "I think as a whole it's a framework we all can live with."
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