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Sweeney Willing to Bend if Christie Will Compromise on Transportation Funding

Senate president warns that if agreement on TTF can’t be reached before national political conventions begin, deadlock will extend through summer

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester)

Road and bridge projects are being shut down across the state thanks to the ongoing political impasse on the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), but Senate President Stephen Sweeney, one of the key officials involved, believes there could be an agreement later this week.

He warned that without an agreement, the gridlock could continue into August due to national political conventions.

Sweeney (D-Gloucester) told reporters yesterday he’s planning to meet this week with Gov. Chris Christie to exchange new ideas with the hope of ending their deadlock. “We’re going to offer a couple of compromises to the governor. Hopefully it’s something that might pique his interest and he’ll offer something back,” he said. “Now it comes down to, can we find a compromise.”

Sweeney said he’s willing to compromise on a key area that’s been a subject of disagreement, which is how many years the TTF’s finance plan needs to be extended. He is amenable to shaving two years off the term of the Senate’s TTF renewal plan, which had up until now been a 10-year, $20 billion reauthorization. A bill that has already passed in the Assembly and has won Christie’s support would renew the TTF for another 8 years, costing $16 billion.

“I would prefer 10 (years), but I’m willing to compromise,” Sweeney said. He declined to discuss the details of any new proposals; he said the meeting with Christie has yet to be finalized.

What remains to be seen is how much Christie, a second-term Republican, is willing to compromise, especially as he seems to be a finalist in the Donald Trump vice-presidential sweepstakes.

That makes this week a crucial one for any TTF resolution; if a deal between Christie and legislative lawmakers can’t be reached within days, the upcoming Republican and Democratic national conventions could distract all players and push the stalemate through the end of the month. (The Republican convention begins in Cleveland next Monday.)

Representatives of county and municipal governments, fearful of that outcome, called for a quick resolution to the gridlock during a news conference yesterday. Others called for a special legislative session to take on the issue, though it doesn’t appear there’s much support right now for that option.

The TTF pays for more than $3 billion in road, bridge, and rail-network improvements each year, counting federal matching funds. The latest five-year finance plan for it ran out on June 30, and the governor and legislative leaders were unable to agree on ways to renew it before the new fiscal year started on July 1.

Christie has since ordered a shutdown of nonessential state-funded road and bridge projects to ensure there’s enough money left in the fund to maintain overall “health, safety and welfare” in New Jersey.

Competing Senate and Assembly plans are both centered on a proposed 23-cent increase of the state gas tax. That would bring in more than $1 billion in new revenue for the TTF and still leave New Jersey’s gas tax at 37.5 cents, which would be lower than the levies in neighboring New York and Pennsylvania.

The governor and Republican lawmakers have maintained that, as it asks motorists to pitch in more at the pump for transportation upgrades, the state has to cut other taxes. Christie and the Democrat-led Assembly favor legislation that would shave one percentage point off the sales tax.

The competing plan, favored by Sweeney and a bipartisan group of senators, would phase out the estate tax and adopt a number of other targeted tax cuts.

The cost of the Christie-favored sales tax cut is projected at $1.6 billion, something Sweeney has said would blow too big a hole in the state budget. The tax cuts in the Senate proposal would cost a more modest $870 million once fully phased in, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

Shortly before Sweeney expressed his hope of a compromise being reached later this week, a group of county and municipal officials held a news conference across the street from the State House t the New Jersey Association of Counties headquarters to call for an end to the impasse. They stressed that not receiving state aid for local transportation projects through the TTF will mean pushing more of the burden onto property taxes, new borrowing -- or possibly both.

“It’s not as if there’s some other magical funding out there that is going to replace the Transportation Trust Fund,” said Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes.

“Infrastructure is infrastructure. It needs to be funded,” said Hope Township Mayor Timothy McDonough.

Tom Bracken, the president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and leader of Forward New Jersey, a coalition that wants a TTF solution, said, “It is way past due to get this issue resolved.” He added, “The only way to get this resolved is to get people together and get it done.” He echoed the call of some lawmakers for a special session of the Legislature to be convened to force a deal.

Sweeney doesn’t think a special session is necessary since, he said, the biggest sticking points are with the governor. Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) has also indicated he doesn’t favor that option. In a statement provided by a spokesman yesterday, Prieto showed a willingness to compromise. “We're always willing to listen to other ideas, as long as it's something that can get signed into law,” Prieto’s statement said. “This is no time for ego and politics. This is the time to get something done."

Christie was out-of-state yesterday campaigning alongside Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee. His office did not comment on the calls for a special session. And it did not confirm Sweeney’s claim that he will be meeting with the governor this week to work on a TTF deal.

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