The lame duck session of the New Jersey Legislature officially got underway Thursday with dueling press conferences by Democratic and Republican leaders in the Assembly. A key focus was replenishing the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), and lawmakers from both sides of political aisle made it sound as if a gas tax increase was all but certain.

Hand with gas pump and money (Photo credit: ThinkStock Images, ThinkStock)

“Including a gas tax, you know that’s the only way that it could get done,” said Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (D-Secaucus). “I’ve been the one that talked about the dirty word, the ‘T’ word from day one. I’ve been up front with it.”

The top Republican in the Assembly said he liked Prieto and looked forward to hammering out some type of funding solution.

“We can work with him,” said Assembly GOP Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield). “Yes, I believe we’ll have a bipartisan bill. Even the governor said taxes are on the table. He (Prieto) is willing to look at lowering some taxes and that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about sending a message to voters that there may be a tax increase on gas, but we’re looking to lower some other taxes. That’s a good start.”

The speaker said he was amenable to talking about phasing out the estate tax as part of a TTF funding deal and noted that he doesn’t agree with some of his colleagues who said the gas tax increase must be a stand-alone issue and not tied to other taxes. Completely and immediately eliminating the estate tax would blow a $440 million hole in the budget and we can’t afford that, according to Prieto.

During the November edition of Townsquare Media's "Ask the Governor" program, Gov. Christie addressed the possibility of a gas tax increase to refund the TTF.

"Everything is on the table for discussion, but it must be done within the context of overall tax fairness to the people of New Jersey," Christie said. "If there is I'd consider any suggestions that they want to make regarding the Transportation Trust Fund."

It would be a deal-breaker "tax fairness" meant revenue neutral, Prieto warned. He said it would be absurd to hike the gas tax to raise a certain amount of revenue only to lower taxes equal to that amount.

Negotiating with the Senate and Christie would have to take place, according to Prieto, because if Christie won’t sign a gas tax hike bill there would be no point in passing one.

While lawmakers would not name a specific plan, there is one existing bill that would increase the tax on petroleum products gross receipts from four cents per gallon to nine percent of the average retail price of unleaded regular gasoline and another measure  to constitutionally dedicate all of the new revenue collected to the TTF.

"It's about 25 cents a gallon," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville). "That translates to about 50 cents a day for the average driver in New Jersey. That's $180 a year. That has to be compared by looking at the cost of driving in New Jersey. It has to be compared to the $600-$1,200 a year that some estimate is the cost that people pay to maintain their vehicles because of the poor condition of our infrastructure."

The gas tax hike would be on top of the existing 10.5 cent gas tax. Wisniewski said that under his plan the tax would be adjusted annually based on the rate of inflation. He explained the increase would be a recurring and sustainable source of revenue to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) indefinitely.

The TTF is on pace to run out of money June 30, 2016.

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.