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NJ gas tax will likely pass Friday … but opponents say public could still kill it

The Senate holds a voting session on Oct. 5, 2016. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
The Senate holds a voting session on Oct. 5, 2016. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)

TRENTON — Though the state Senate didn’t have the votes to pass the Transportation Trust Fund package Wednesday, there was enough support in a procedural vote to suggest that the gas-tax hike and accompanying tax cuts would pass Friday. Unless some senators change their minds.

Lawmakers were hoping to amend an earlier, stalled-out version of the plan to reflect the deal struck last Friday with Gov. Chris Christie, then immediately vote on the bills. Doing so requires a three-fourths supermajority vote to declare an emergency. But after days of cajoling, it still fell short.

The vote to amend the bill was 23-10, two more than the minimum 21 votes a bill needs to pass.

“You saw the votes were here to pass it. And there was a member or two that wasn’t on the floor that’s supporting it, they just weren’t here,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “So we’ll be back on Friday morning. It’s a delay of a day.”

“There’s enough votes to pass the gas tax,” Sweeney said. “It’s a tough bill.”

Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said “we’ve always known coming in 30 was going to be difficult.” Earlier incarnations of the plan couldn’t get support from more than 25 or 26 senators. But he said a simple majority of 21 senators is achievable.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Sarlo said. “There’s an agreement in place. It’s not a perfect agreement. But it’s a compromise. When you have a Republican governor and a Democratic controlled Legislature, there’s a compromise in place. And we’re confident on Friday there will be 21 votes here plus in the Senate and 41 plus in the Assembly.”

“As much as everybody wanted to get it done today, we wait to Friday,” Sarlo said. “But every day we wait is another day that our infrastructure crumbles. Every day we wait is another day that people are out of work and our economy continues to falter.”

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Can it be stopped?

Opponents of the plan said its passage Friday is far from certain.

“No, I think there’s a real chance to stop it,” said Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth. “I think legislators paused. They were a little taken aback by the way the general public responded to the idea of a billion dollar tax increase.”

“There’s a lot that can happen between now and Friday. The public will be on those phones calling up legislators. We’ll have a real shot at stopping this if we have time to get the public involved,” said Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union.

“It’s amazing what the public can do these days to stop government from ramming things down their throat,” he said.

How they voted

Here’s how the 23-10 vote to amend the bill broke down:

Eighteen Democrats voted YES: James Beach, Richard Codey, Nilsa Cruz-Perez, Sandra Cunningham, Patrick Diegnan, Robert Gordon, Linda Greenstein, Fred Madden, Nellie Pou, Ronald Rice, Nicholas Sacco, Paul Sarlo, Bob Smith, Brian Stack, Joseph Vitale, Loretta Weinberg, Jim Whelan and Sweeney.

Five Republicans voted YES: Dawn Marie Addiego, Joseph Kryillos, Steve Oroho, Kevin O’Toole and Robert Singer.

Seven Republicans voted NO: Diane Allen, Christopher “Kip” Bateman, Gerald Cardinale, Michael Doherty, Tom Kean Jr., Sam Thompson and Beck.

Three Democrats voted NO: Nia Gill, Shirley Turner and Lesniak.

Seven senators didn’t vote: Anthony Bucco, Chris Connors, James Holzapfel, Joseph Pennacchio, Teresa Ruiz, Nicholas Scutari and Jeff Van Drew.

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What’s in the bill

Lawmakers first saw the amended bills Wednesday morning, and the text of the amendments wasn’t publicly available until hours after the session had ended.

The details don’t appear to include any surprises that swerve from the framework announced Friday.

The increase in the gas tax would take effect no sooner than Nov. 1. The bill says it would be implemented on Nov. 1 or 15 days after Christie signs the bill, whichever comes later.

The gas tax would increase 23 cents a gallon, and the tax rate would then be adjusted each year to ensure the state collects $1.16 billion a year in additional gas-tax revenues. If gas sales decline, the tax rate would go up. If they increase, the tax rate would be reduced.

The estate tax would be phased out by the start of 2018. The sales tax would be reduced by one-eighth of a percentage point in January, then another quarter percent in 2018. Income taxes would be changed in ways that benefit the working poor, veterans and retirees.

The tax hikes amount to $1.2 billion a year, and the tax cuts eventually approach $1.4 billion a year.

A bill so comprehensive shouldn’t have been voted on with little notice Wednesday, said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union.

“Transparency should be the order of the day and to make sure that the people have a chance to see what’s in the legislation, whether they be elected officials here today or whether they be citizens across the state of New Jersey, that transparency is a good thing all the time,” Kean said.

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Backers of the plan said a vote would have been nice but were confident in their chances Friday.

“We’ve waited this long, we can wait two days,” said Tom Bracken, chairman of the Forward New Jersey coalition. We’ve got to get this done, and it sounds like Friday it will get done.”

“This is a huge transformational step forward for the state of New Jersey, and that’s getting lost in the 23 cent gas tax discussion,” said Bracken, the president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “And there are people that’s going to impact. And I’m fully compassionate of that. But you have to look at the future of New Jersey. You can’t get stuck in today.”

The Senate scheduled a session for 10 a.m. Friday. The Assembly scheduled its session for 1 p.m.

Also on New Jersey 101.5:

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New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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