No gas tax, no solution for fixing NJ’s roads and bridges … maybe until October?
The impasse over New Jersey’s transportation funding has now gone on for more than three weeks, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney worries it could last more than three months.
State-funded road, bridge and rail projects are suspended, as the state figures out how to stretch its remaining unspent money in the Transportation Trust Fund and keep a cushion in case of emergencies. That has led to temporary layoffs and could add $40 million to projects’ costs for shutting down and restarting construction.
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, repeated Thursday that the state budget can’t afford a sales tax cut the size that Gov. Chris Christie wants in exchange for hiking the gas tax 23 cents a gallon. The Senate was willing to pass a plan with more targeted tax cuts that would cost the state half as much revenue.
“We’ve got to get this done. There’s no more money than basically what we’ve offered,” Sweeney said. “So this is not a good sign. My concern is this goes into September or October. Don’t think it can’t.”
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, who agreed in late June to the sales-tax reduction, said there is ongoing dialogue with the Senate and Christie’s office but said there’s nothing new to report about the progress. He was asked about the prospects of the issue lingering into October.
“Listen, I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball,” Prieto said. “I would hope that hopefully we can get it done before then.”
Christie and Sweeney have met once since the new fiscal year began three weeks ago without a transportation funding plan in place.
It doesn’t appear to have gone well. Sweeney brought a revised proposal to Christie, expecting the governor to reject it – and he did, telling reporters Sunday night in Cleveland in an informal talk before the Republican National Convention began that “it was ridiculous and … unacceptable. He knows it.”
Sweeney said Thursday he “was more than annoyed when I read what the governor had said in the press.” He said he was still waiting to get a counteroffer that was supposed to be delivered by the end of last week.
“If the governor thinks that I’m going to pass the Assembly bill, I can’t be any clearer: It’s not happening,” he said. “Look, I went in the middle of the room to offer him something. When you offer something, you should get something back, not an article in the press saying it was ridiculous. I didn’t say that his bill that he did with Prieto was ridiculous, although it is.”
Sweeney said Christie doesn't want to budge from the sales-tax centered deal he struck with Prieto.
“I don’t think he’s worried about who comes after him,” Sweeney said of Christie. “I don’t think he worries about that. Because it would really have a devastating impact on the state.”
There was finally a sign of movement Thursday afternoon.
"The governor did convey a counteroffer to Sen. Sweeney,” said Christie spokesman Brian Murray, who would not offer additional details.
"After being called out three times by the Senate president for not following through with a promised counter proposal for a renewed Transportation Trust Fund, the governor finally responded this afternoon. We are reviewing his proposal," said Rich McGrath, a Sweeney spokesman.
Sweeney has expressed incredulity that the Assembly agreed to the sales tax cut, which when paired with a tax cut on retirement income will reduce state revenues $1.9 billion a year by 2022, on the same day it voted to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would guarantee payments into the pension funds for public workers would rise $3.5 billion annually by 2022.
“If I was to do that bill with the pension piece at the same time, like the Assembly did, you would destroy the economy of this state. We cannot do it,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney, risking the ire of public-sector unions, might not post the proposed pension amendment by the early August deadline needed to make this November’s ballot. Prieto said the state can do both the TTF and pension amendment at the same time.
“We passed it out of our house,” Prieto said of the pension amendment. “It’s in the Senate, so that’s for them to get done. I think it is important to get accomplished, and I think it’s important for us to make our payments. So I think it’s something that needs to get done.”
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