3 reasons Sen. Oroho couldn’t convince me to support a 23-cent gas tax hike
I want to thank Republican state Sen. Steve Oroho — the architect of a plan to raise the gas tax by 23 cents in the hopes of eventually saving taxpayers money — for coming into the studio this week.
Oroho and I couldn't be farther apart on this issue. I've been saying for months we don't need a gas tax hike to add to our already insane tax burden — and I'm asking people to spread the word on Twitter and Facebook using #NoGasTax.
But Oroho — unlike a certain Democratic state Senate President I've tried to get onto the show to talk over our disagreements — came into the lion's den. He knew I'd be a tough sell, and he was willing to come in and make his case regardless. You've got to respect that.
But sorry, Steve. I'm still not convinced. And here's why:
I don't trust the numbers
Here's the idea behind Oroho's plan. Under the projections the legislature is working with, New Jersey taxpayers would be on the hook for about $82 billion for our roads and bridges over the next 10 years. And, Oroho argues, that's money coming out of the general fund — your tax dollars, paid in sales and business taxes and others.
So, he told me, let's make it a user fee — and in principle, I like user fees. Sure, have the people who use a service fund it. It's why I support beach badges (I think we should charge more for beach badges). Some of those users are out-of-staters — and Oroho says they'd eat up about $28 billion of the cost if it was collected in gas taxes.
So far, "it's been propped up by New Jersey taxpayers alone," Oroho told me in the studio.
Not bad, right? A $28 billion tax break for New Jerseyans? It sounds nice. Oroho says that money could go back to the taxpayer, or offset other spending.
"It will provide major tax relief for retirement income, business income, as well as billions of dollars to our charities who help provide safety net services to our homeless shelters, our veterans organizations, our food pantries, Project Self Sufficiency in Sussex County," Oroho said.
But I don't see it happening.
All of this is based on the assumption we're going to collect $1.3 billion per year with the new gas tax. But you know what? Revenue from the existing gas tax has been declining over the last 10 years.
I don't think that $1.3 billion figure is going to hold up — not with people driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, and taking more public transportation. People are going to seek out ways to save, and the state's going to come up short.
Oroho argues an in-depth study built into his tax plan, and an $150 fee for alternative fuel vehicles would help deal with those trends. I think we're starting out with a faulty premise and they won't do nearly enough.
The legislature will spend our money anyway
Oroho's plan depends on the idea that if we can rely on the gas tax-fueled Transportation Trust Fund, instead of the state's general fund, we won't need to raise as much in other taxes.
"When we get the structure right, then we should be able to get to lowering the sales tax," Oroho said in the studio.
Again, it's a nice idea.
But I heard the same sorts of promises when our income tax was raised — that it would help to offset our property taxes. My own property taxes went up 22 percent over the last few years. That's help I'm not feeling.
And right now, there's nothing to stop the state from raiding the gas tax for other spending anyway. In the fall, voters will be asked if all money from the gas tax should go to transportation funding — and maybe they'll say yes. But for now, that gas tax increase could wind up going anywhere.
We had a particularly animated caller, Mike, the day Oroho came to the studio. By his quick math, he's expecting to pay another $2,000 five years from now between a gas tax hike and ever-increasing property taxes.
Oroho tried to tell him that if the gas tax doesn't offset the general fund, the other taxes will be even worse.
"The shift to the out-of-staters will absolutely lower the burden vs what it would be," Oroho said.
But Mike wasn't having it, and I feel his pain: "Who can afford that?" he asked. "No more taxes. No more taxes! (It's a) Ponzi scheme."
We spend way too much on roads as is
New Jersey's got some absolutely insane spending on roadway costs. And I don't see anything in Oroho's plan that's going to work to bring spending down.
A study by the Reason Foundation my friend state Sen. Mike Doherty (like Oroho, a Republican) has been citing says New Jersey's roads are among the most expensive to build, operate and maintain. It said New Jersey’s state highways cost taxpayers $2 million per mile — 12 times the national average.
Twelve times. If that number is anywhere close to accurate, that's insane.
To be fair, the state DOT disputes that number. But with reports the reconstruction of Route 35 were more than $27 million per mile, it's clear our costs are out of control.
So before anyone starts talking about charging hardworking New Jersey taxpayers more to drive to work, to their loved ones, to services they need — let's stop spending so much of their money unnecessarily.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter at @BillSpadea and @NJ1015. And if you're on the same page as me, I want to see that hashtag — #NoGasTax.