Lawmakers Approve Gas Tax Hike to Replenish Transportation Trust Fund

By Brenda Flanagan

“We are judged today — all 40 of us — by this moment,” said Sen. Kevin O’Toole.

O’Toole urged Senate colleagues to vote their conscience, but the long and winding road to renewing New Jersey’s bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund took more than a moment: both houses debated for hours before finally voting to reauthorize the TTF and pay for it by hiking the gas tax 23 cents — along with a package of tax cuts to sweeten the deal. It’ll raise $16 billion over the next eight years, to rehabilitate the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. In the end, the bipartisan measures passed easily.

“If we don’t make an investment, we are going to be at a complete economic disadvantage and we’re going to lose business which means taxes will go up,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“Everybody’s not going to love this bill, but it’s a bill everybody’s going to have to live with and again it’s a public safety issue,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.

Many politicians reported a barrage of phone calls from constituents angry over more than doubling the gas tax from 14.5 cents to 37.5 cents per gallon. Some calculated it could cost New Jersey commuters $170 a year.

“We’ve always gotten calls about legislative matters. But we’re not getting calls that are saying, well I’m for this or I’m against it. We’re getting calls of outrage. Outrage,” said Sen. Gerald Cardinale.

“For the average driver this compromise will cost the price of a small — or as they say, tall — cup of Starbucks coffee. I don’t trivialize it. But when you do the math, that’s what it is,” said Sen. Joe Kyrillos.

“When you pull up to that gas pump, that’s money coming directly out of your pocket and those are the people who are going to be hurt most — the ones living from paycheck to paycheck and hand to mouth,” said Sen. Shirley Turner.

But the votes ended long months of political gridlock — exacerbated in June, when Gov. Chris Christie froze work on road projects because, he said, there was no money to pay for it. The compromise measure trims New Jersey’s 7 percent sales tax by 0.375 percent; raises the earned income tax credit from 30 percent to 35 percent; phases out the estate tax; and provides income tax exemptions for vets and retirees. Critics fumed the givebacks cost too much.

“Over the next decade, this bill is going to take $12.3 billion out of the state budget. We can’t afford it. We don’t have $12.3 billion lying around,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

“When I was a kid, on Saturday mornings we’d watch Popeye cartoons and had our favorite character, Wimpy, who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. This is a Wimpy kind of tax cut, where we raise your taxes today and promise some tax relief tomorrow. Trust us, we’re from Trenton,” said Assemblyman Jay Webber.

“The opponents to this have offered no alternatives,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon. “While this plan is not perfect it earned my vote.”

The governor’s expected to sign the bills.

Legislative leaders say they expect the governor will raise the construction projects freeze immediately. People can expect to start paying 23 cents a gallon more in tax at the pump Nov. 1.