More drivers say they support increasing the state gas tax than they did two years ago if they’re guaranteed the money will be spent wisely on transportation projects and not diverted for other uses, according to a new AAA poll. Drivers agreed that the state’s roads, bridges and transit system needs work, and gave state highways and local roads a fair to poor ranking in the November AAA poll. Drivers and mass transit riders also said their commutes have gotten worse over the last two years. The gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1988. Still, AAA officials admit it’s a hard sell to increase the gas tax in a state where residents feel like they are taxed to death. In a poll of 600 motorists last November, 63 percent said they’d support an increased gas tax. That support is based on conditions that the money is dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund and safeguards are in place to ensure there is no waste, abuse or diversion of that money. The Transportation Trust Fund is out of money to do any construction work, since all of its revenue is going to pay off past debt. A state report last year said that the fund would be $70 million short of covering its debt payments. The issue may be forced this year since the state used up the last of the borrowing power that the trust fund had to finance the DOT’s fiscal year 2016 capital budget. A gas tax increase remains a hard sell. As recently as Feb. 4, Gov. Chris Christie reiterated his vow not to raise the gas tax. Last year, legislative democrats said they weren’t going to spend political capital to move a gas tax bill only to have it die on Christie’s desk. Other non-gas tax solutions include auditing the DOT, reduce the cost of constriction and cut other areas of the state budget and out it into transportation
New Jersey’s minimum wage is $8.38, and if you believe you can raise a family or run a household on $17,400 a year, you’ve probably never tried it. But while it’s safe to say the wage floor needs a substantial boost, a real debate must begin over how high and how soon this hike can be imposed. Senate President Steve Sweeney and Speaker Vincent Prieto have begun the process by submitted new wage proposals, but we have our doubts about both. Prieto has drafted a quixotic bill that would immediately raise the minimum to $15, which would have no chance of getting past Gov. Christie’s desk. Sweeney’s own fight for $15 calls for an end run around the governor, by putting the issue on the ballot and asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment that increases the minimum by $1 a year until 2024. Granted, using the Constitution to set policy like this is not ideal, but Sweeney faces unreasonable opposition in the governor’s office. Still, caution is required when you carve the wage in stone: Christie will be gone in two years, giving the Legislature another chance to raise the wage by statute. Businesses exaggerate the threat of job losses with higher wages, as economists have shown over and over. Legal Services of New Jersey measured what it actually takes to live in our high-rent state, and sets the poverty level for a family of four at $64,238 to $73,371. Using that template, 2.8 million adults in the state are poor, including 800,000 children. Their cause should be a top priority, because these families cannot afford a car repair, the weekly grocery bill is a math migraine, and a medical issue could be catastrophic. And there is too much at stake for legislative leaders to shoot too high and miss.
State Senate Democrats are moving forward-again- on a plan to require New Jersey businesses to offer employees paid sick days. But the bill (S799), which comes up for a Senate vote Thursday, provides an example of how Democrats’ progressive agendas in the Legislature are stymied by disagreements between leaders of both houses even before they hit a roadblock in Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Under the bill, employees would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work. They would be allowed to accumulate at least 40 hours of sick leave if they work for a company with 10 employees or fewer, and at least 72 hours for larger companies. Employees would be entitled to be paid for the full amount of unused sick leave at the end of the year, or be paid for half of it and carry the other half over to the next year. Those aspects of the bill are not in dispute. But state Senate leaders and Assembly speaker Vincent Prieto disagree on one key point: Whether New Jersey municipalities should be able to pass local ordinances above and beyond the state law.
In the eight months that Christie has focused most of his time on his Republican presidential campaign, the problems he faces in New Jersey remain. Some — like the financial mess in Atlantic City — have only gotten worse. After he suspended his campaign Wednesday following a disappointing sixth-place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday, here’s a look at some of the issues that await him back home:
THE PENSION DEBATE
A simmering fight over public pensions continues with problems stemming from years of neglect from Democratic and Republican administrations who failed to pay into the system. Christie has backed a reform plan put forward by a commission he appointed, but Democrats instead are moving ahead with a potential ballot question to enshrine quarterly pension payments in the state constitution.
Christie has called for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax — the nation’s second lowest — but says it’s unacceptable unless paired with other tax cuts. Democrats argue there’s no way around raising the tax to shore up the fund, which is on track to go broke by July. Whether he cuts a deal on raising the gas tax could depend on if he plans to run for president again, political experts say. Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto says he hopes Christie’s return results in bipartisan agreements on the issues.
WHAT HE’S MISSED
Since Christie has been gone, Republicans lost seats in the Assembly in November’s election and his approval ratings have plummeted. He returned last month to work with legislative leaders on ending Atlantic City’s monopoly on casino gambling in return for aid to the struggling resort. Christie helped to seal a deal for a referendum to let voters decide, although that bill is still moving through the Legislature.
The first steps to building a back-up power system to keep sections of NJ Transit’s busiest rail lines running, after a blackout or storm knocks out electricity, were taken by NJ Transit’s board Wednesday (Feb 10). Board members approved a $17 million contract with Jacobs Engineering Group of Morristown to design and do preliminary engineering for what could be the nation’s first mass transit micro power grid. The system, known as NJ Transitgrid, would provide limited rail service even during a blackout of commercial power. If a blackout occurred, NJ Transit would be able to operate 40 to 50 percent of their trains. NJ Transitgrid would use a natural gas fired power plant in Kearny to generate electricity to run trains on core parts of the Northeast Corridor up to New Brunswick and all of Hudson-Bergen Light Rail. It would power signals on the Morris and Essex and Main Line up to Newark Penn Station and Secaucus. NJ Transitgrid would also power key facilities such as the Rail Operations Center, Meadowlands Maintenance Complex and some bus facilities. NJ Transitgrid will not replace the problem-plagued overhead wires on the Northeast Corridor which causes delays when it fails. The concept resulted after Hurricane Sandy knocked out electric power, which sidelined NJ Transit rail lines for about a week after the Oct. 2012 storm. NJ Transitgrid is one of several resiliency projects to receive federal funding after Sandy. The Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Department of Energy allocated $409 million for NJ Transitgrid, which will require $168 million in state funding to match it. Amtrak also will pay into the program. In addition to building a power plant, NJ Transitgrid would rebuild an Amtrak substation, install solar panels to power certain stations and bus facilities. Design and engineering is scheduled to take 15 months. NJ Transitgrid is expected to be constructed by 2021.