By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
A sense of occasion hung over the Senate conference room as Democratic leaders and two Republicans presented their 10-year Transportation Trust Fund plan.
Chief sponsors Paul Sarlo, a Democrat, and Steve Oroho, Republican, extolled the virtues of their solution.
“We are making a significant investment, a 10-year investment in the future of the state in infrastructure. A state that is the main corridor up the northeast. A state where 30 percent of the purchase of gasoline will be purchased by out-of-state drivers who use our roadways,” Sarlo said.
The plan would raise the gas tax by as much as 23 cents per gallon.
To offset that are tax cuts that Gov. Chris Christie wants as part of what he calls tax fairness: a phase-out of the estate tax, an increase in the earned income tax credit for the working poor, a tax exemption on the first $100,000 of retirement or pension income, a deduction for charitable contributions — something New Jersey’s income tax has never allowed — and a tax deduction for those who drive excessive distances.
“New Jersey is in a great location. We’re going to be between Philadelphia and New York for the rest of my life, I know it. We’ve got a great workforce. We’ve got great infrastructure when it’s property maintained. Our gross domestic product should be growing better than the national average. We have all the assets to do it,” Oroho said.
Lobbyists for business, labor and mass transit filled the room.
Sarlo said state nonprofit organizations are happy that the bill would stimulate more charitable contributions. And there was a sense of general optimism.
“If this gets done, one of the most significant, perhaps the most significant legislative package that has happened here in 15, maybe 20 years,” said Sen. Joe Kyrillos.
“We are finally setting our priorities in an appropriate way,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
Assembly Democrats appear on board with their Senate colleagues as their majority leader attended and spoke.
“This isn’t about what is publicized as a ‘tax increase.’ That’s not what this is today. This is about an economic stimulus package for New Jersey that is a byproduct of legislature that has been worked on for years,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald.
Even Christie’s former transportation commissioner Jamie Fox made an appearance to lend his support.
“This is good for New Jersey. This is good for the economy,” Fox said.
But the governor himself was a little harsh in remarks this morning, saying there aren’t enough tax reductions in the plan and the tax increase is too large.
“They are advocating for 23 cent increase — a more than doubling of the gas tax. There’s more. If you look into the bill there’s more tax increases in there as well,” Christie said.
Christie is also critical that the bill for double the amount of transportation funding for counties and municipalities.
“There’s a crisis all of a sudden. If there’s a crisis what are you doing doubling the amount of money going to municipalities. When they do that, let me tell you something, you know what that is? That is a payoff to protect their political backsides. Payoff the local mayors, payoff the local council so they’ll endorse the local assemblyman and senator. Don’t let them fool you that it’s property tax relief,” he said.
“At one time towns and counties had 20 percent of the TTF. It’s down to 11 percent. What we’re proposing is putting it back to what they always got,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
The mood was celebratory at this one-hour press conference, as if the Transportation Trust Fund issue has finally been wrestled to the ground. The big question is how much push-back might still come from Gov. Christie and Republican legislators.