By David Cruz
For an issue that had hung in the air for two years and strained even the closest political relationships, the resolution of the Transportation Trust Fund crisis was announced with the whimper of a Friday afternoon news dump, in front of a handful of press at the end of a long week of news. Sorry about that, said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“We didn’t wait until the last possible minute,” Sweeney said. “We had a meeting scheduled on Friday; it was a pre-arranged meeting.”
It’s an eight-year deal, which funds the TTF at $2 billion a year. It’s the longest and largest TTF funding plan ever, said the governor, with federal matching funds bringing funding to $32 billion over the next eight years.
In addition to a 23-cent hike in the gas tax, this is the tax fairness side of the deal everyone said they wanted. To start with, a phase out of the estate tax. A reduction in the state sales tax over the next two years. An increase in the earned income tax credit and other benefits for seniors and veterans.
“At the end of the day, we all compromised,” said Sweeney. “It was not fun by any means and for me to say I won, no, I didn’t win, neither did the speaker, neither did the governor. We came up with a plan that is going to fund our roads and bridges for eight years.”
With Gov. Chris Christie holding all the cards, Democratic leaders were left to play their usual roles of backdrops in the governor’s outer office.
“This was a compromise that 75 percent of the public wants us to do in Trenton,” said Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick.
But liberal groups are already lining up to blast the plan, calling it a budget buster.
“New Jersey already operates under a structural deficit; that means we take in less money than we actually need to meet all of our obligations,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families. “We’re talking about eliminating $751 million in year one and then upwards of $1.4 billion in revenue, mostly going to dead, rich people and undermining every single one of the priorities that we have in the state.”
But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo warned against doom and gloom scenarios.
“It’s a little bit larger than what the Senate originally intended. Clearly it’s going to put a strain on us for next year’s budget,” he said.
But a billion dollars?
“No, it’s not a billion dollars. Don’t read the hype,” Sarlo said.
Budget buster or state saver, the TTF deal will mean that workers at dozens of road and infrastructure jobs across the state will be back to work very soon and planning on other big projects — like expanded light rail — can finally move to the front burner and all the unpleasantness of the past few years can be forgotten, for now.