Lawmakers puzzled: Why hasn’t Christie signed the gas tax yet?
TRENTON — Closing in on one week since the Legislature voted to raise New Jersey’s gas tax to fund transportation projects, Gov. Chris Christie hasn’t yet signed the legislation – despite agreeing to the deal, including a series of tax cuts, with legislative leaders.
A review by the governor’s chief counsel’s office is common, particularly for complex legislation that’s hurriedly written and passed. However the delay is getting longer than most expected, especially since thousands of construction workers have been off the job for three months due to a lack of funding.
Nevertheless, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he’s confident Christie will sign it soon.
“Frustration?” said Sweeney, repeating a word from a reporter’s question Thursday at the Statehouse. “The governor, I don’t know why he’s not signing the bill that we agreed to. They said he is, so I expect him to do it. Why he’s waiting, I have no idea.”
“I don’t know when, but I’m not concerned,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “This is something that he publicly said he supported, and it’s something that we in both houses moved forward on because we came to a consensus.”
“He needs to sign it so that projects can get started. We can put people back to work, most importantly,” he said.
On June 30, Christie directed the Department of Transportation to shut down all state-funded construction projects that weren’t crucial for public safety effective July 8. About 900 projects were affected and an estimated 4,000 people temporarily laid off.
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, who is also chief operating officer for the highway and heavy construction company Joseph M. Sanzari Inc., said the construction season will soon be over. The head of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey said it ends the first few weeks of December.
“We’ve lost a season,” Sarlo said. “And when you lose a season you don’t only lose just good roadwork, you also lose a lot of economic output.”
“The biggest problem is we pretty much lost the season. So you’re going to see a busy spring, I would think,” said Sweeney, an ironworkers’ union official. “You’ll see a busy spring where there’s going to be a lot more work because the weather – certain temperatures, you can’t put asphalt down. You can work on bridges, but even production on bridges is slower when it’s cold.”
If Christie waits beyond the start of next week to sign the bill, the effective date for the plan’s 23-cent per gallon hike in the gas tax will be delayed.
The bill says the implementation date is the later of Nov. 1 or 15 days after Christie signs it.
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Revenues from the gas tax, along with $12 billion in new borrowing, will enable the state to have a $2 billion a year, eight-year construction program. Including federal matching funds, that amounts to $4 billion a year in infrastructure spending.
Lawmakers were joined Thursday by county and local elected officials to highlight that $400 million of the state’s $2 billion will be directed to local governments. They said that’s roughly double the current amount of local aid and acts as a form of property tax relief, since towns and counties can borrow less.
“This is tax relief because if we don’t get this doubling of the local aid, it’s incumbent upon the taxpayers to pay for it,” said Somerset County Freeholder Peter Palmer, chairman of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.
Sarlo said the funding includes $194 million for municipalities, $150 million for counties, $28 million for counties and towns for projects related to freight rail lines and $28 million as seed money for a program that will provide local governments $250 million in low-interest loans.
“This is going to provide a boost in the value of our properties in our respective municipalities and counties and at the same time is property tax relief. Very critical, it’s property tax relief,” Sarlo said. “There is no way the local taxpayer could be funding the repaving of local roads and county roads.”
The most recent survey of motorists by AAA of New Jersey found 45 percent said their commutes worsened over the past two years, said Cathleen Lewis, its director of public affairs and government relations.
“Our local, county and township roadways are the ones that need repair the most. They have been left to deteriorate the longest. And commuters feel that every single day,” said Lewis, who is also a Lawrence councilwoman and the township's former mayor.
“This bill is going to make sure that the onus and the payment for these road projects is going to be put on those people who use those roads, and not on the property owners in each of these municipalities and counties,” Lewis said. “It’s important that we make sure that those people who are using the roads are the ones that are paying to get them maintained and fixed.”