Efforts to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund are no longer about sound public policy or amending the state’s tax code. It’s now about control and power and who gets to exercise them.
When Gov. Chris Christie publicly rejected and ridiculed a bipartisan plan to replenish the Fund by increasing the motor fuels tax and offsetting it with a series of tax cuts and credits, he teed up a potentially damaging confrontation with the Legislature -- including a handful of Republicans -- and raised the possibility of the first override of a gubernatorial veto in Christie’s six-and-one-half years in office.
After months of taunting the Legislature and daring it to develop an extension of the trust fund, Christie berated the latest effort as falling far short of his condition that any proposal meet his definition of “tax fairness,” even though he never spelled out his idea of fairness.
The suspicion that the governor staked out a position that gave him the freedom to determine “tax fairness” and reject any proposal that he said failed the test seems to have come to pass with his dismissal of the Legislature’s program. He could -- and has -- merely move the goalposts out of range.
The proposal would increase the motor fuels tax to 37.5 cents per gallon -- up from 14.5 cents -- to generate $1.6 billion a year in support of a 10-year, $20 billion trust fund.
The impact would be eased, its supporters say, by a phase out of the estate tax, an increase in the tax exemption for retirement income, an increase in the earned income tax credit for low-income wage earners, an income tax deduction for charitable contributions, and a similar deduction for those who pay gas taxes in excess of one percent of their adjusted gross income.
The tax cuts proposed “aren’t nearly enough for my taste,” Christie said, but he reserved special scorn for a provision to double state aid for municipal governments to $400 million for transportation projects.
He accused the plan’s supporters of deception for claiming the increased aid was a form of property-tax relief and said it was only included in the proposal as a “payoff to protect their political backsides.”
Followed to its logical conclusion, Christie’s criticism would define any state aid program as a “payoff,” even though he -- as every governor preceding him -- takes any opportunity to boast of such aid as evidence of the administration’s commitment to easing the local property-tax burden.
State of the State and budget messages always include self-congratulatory rhetoric about increased state aid to local governments, particularly to school districts, and Christie’s caustic reaction to the doubling of transportation funding, seemed out of place.
With the deadline to act fast approaching before the financial wherewithal to undertake any new construction or rehabilitation projects is lost and with both sides seemingly locked into their respective positions, a compromise is the only alternative to the demise of the 32-year-old fund.
Its fate has become a struggle for control and power. Either the governor or the Legislature must concede ground while emerging from the confrontation with a claim of victory.
Should the Legislature push ahead and, with Republican support, approve the proposal, Christie may well make good on his threat to veto it -- a move that will create a sticky political dilemma for some members of his own party.
The governor has relied on legislative Republicans to sustain his vetoes more than 50 times since he took office, despite the embarrassment of their publicly switching from support to opposition.
The political environment, though, has been altered significantly. Christie’s failed attempt at securing the Republican presidential nomination and his subsequent endorsement of Donald Trump produced a precipitous decline in his public support, falling to an all-time low of 26 percent.
His political capital has been seriously devalued and, combined with his lame duck status, Republicans no longer feel the need to acquiesce in his demands for partisan loyalty.
In a contest for power with an admittedly weakened chief executive and with an issue as critical as rescuing the trust fund at stake, Republicans may be sufficiently emboldened to reassert themselves and join with Democrats to override his veto.
With Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) as a co-sponsor of the legislation, and with Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) describing the proposal as “one of the most important initiatives in recent history,” the early seeds have been planted in the Republican garden to defy Christie.
Democratic leaders in the Senate have made it clear they will actively solicit Republican support for an override should it come to that and expressed confidence that such support will be forthcoming.
The looming confrontation will evolve into a contest of wills.
The governor’s diminished political clout and a weakening of his ability to enforce strict party loyalty suggests formerly reliable Republican legislators will not bend under front-office pressure. It is a recognition that, for some, deserting him no longer carries the same risk it once did.
The power struggle will play out over the next few weeks and grow in intensity. As the end of the fiscal year becomes imminent, calmer heads may prevail and the necessity of a compromise may become clearer.
Failing that, one side or the other will face what no political figure wishes to face: holding the losing hand in a high stakes gamble.