The struggle to reauthorize the Transportation Trust Fund and provide a stable source of funding for it for the next decade has driven legislative Republicans to the edge of political exhaustion, pressured on one side by dark predictions of economic decline if the fund isn’t rescued and on the other by an unpopular lame-duck governor determined to prove he’s still in command of events.
In this circumstance, it would seem that compromise is elusive at best and impossible at worst.
Yesterday, the governor scathingly wrote off a compromise when he characterized the latest Democratic proposal as failing to meet his standard for “tax fairness” and declared the package dead on arrival. His message was clear, concise, and blunt: I’m still governor, I still control events, and my will is stronger than yours.
It was after weeks of offers and counteroffers, highlighted by an executive order shutting down millions of dollars worth of ongoing road construction projects, that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) settled on a package remarkably similar to that announced a month ago but -- ironically with Prieto’s help --- was blocked by the governor.
In exchange for a 23-cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax, the leaders’ proposal provides a phase out of the estate tax, an increase in the earned income tax credit, an increase in the exemption level for retirement and pension income, and a gas tax deduction.
It is essentially the program rejected two weeks ago by Christie who, after late-night and early-morning negotiations with Prieto, announced he would accept a gas-tax increase if it was offset by a one-cent reduction in the state sales tax.
By buying in to the governor’s plan and muscling it through the Assembly, Prieto went far out on a limb that the Senate -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- promptly sawed off by announcing it had no support in their chamber. The Speaker’s joining with Sweeney in the new (or old) plan is as much an exercise in cleaning the egg off his face as it is in breaking the impasse.
By rejecting the latest Democratic plan in stark language, Christie embarrassed the Speaker even further when he expressed his disappointment over Prieto’s allying himself with Sweeney. The governor, in essence, sucker punched the Speaker not once, but twice.
Should the Democrats move ahead despite Christie’s opposition and gather sufficient support to secure legislative approval, it will invite a gubernatorial veto, the stalemate will continue, what little remains of the revenue stream will vanish and the Trust Fund will hit a zero balance.
The Republican legislators’ desperation to put the issue behind them is palpable. They worry they will bear the brunt of the blame for a continued standoff with its costly work stoppages and the idling of thousands of construction workers.
Moreover, the pressure is building steadily from business interests and transportation advocacy groups that failure to replenish the Trust Fund sends a disturbing signal to investors and corporate executives that New Jersey has placed political considerations above the need to build and maintain an adequate transportation infrastructure.
They warn also of the devastating impact of road and bridge closures and the resulting traffic gridlock on economic growth and development.
Democrats occupy the high ground at the moment, having proposed what they argue is a reasonable plan to rescue the Fund while placing responsibility directly on the governor for obstructing progress in pursuit of a fiscally reckless and politically motivated ploy to cut the sales tax.
A gubernatorial veto of the latest funding plan would justify the Democrats’ argument while placing Republicans in a difficult position. Sweeney is well aware that Republicans, with an eye on the 2017 gubernatorial and legislative election, want to free themselves of the issue and the rising criticism that accompanies a continued impasse. In fact, he’s intimated that he’s counting on the Republicans’ dilemma to produce sufficient votes to override a veto by Christie.
Republican legislators understand that, if the Trust Fund is allowed to wither away, they -- not the governor -- will pay the political price next year. Their names and their records will be on the ballot, not Christie’s.
Republicans have demonstrated time and again their fealty to the governor by blocking more than 50 Democratic efforts to override vetoes, even when their loyalty required an embarrassing public change of position.
The political environment now, though, has been altered dramatically.
Christie’s job approval standing has fallen to 26 percent and confidence in his handling of the state’s problems has declined significantly. His administration remains under a cloud cast by the scandal involving the closures of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge nearly three years ago and his image took a serious hit with a guilty plea to Federal felony charges by former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chairman and close personal and political confidante David Samson. It absorbed a second blow when U. S. attorney Paul Fishman brought charges against longtime Democratic operative and lobbyist Jamie Fox who served for a time as Christie’s Commissioner of Transportation.
All governors find themselves holding a weaker hand as their lame- duck status becomes clearer, but Christie has been undermined even further by the legal woes of his associates and former staffers, as well as by his seeming preoccupation with national politics, his support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, his heavy travel schedule as a Trump surrogate, and his public pursuit of the vice presidential selection.
The political stars may have fallen into an alignment and lighted a path for Republicans in the Legislature to break cleanly with their governor and join the forces of override should it come to that.
It’s likely that many of them clung to a hope that Christie would move toward compromise, abandon his demand for a sales tax reduction and embrace the tax breaks in the Democratic plan as sufficient to meet his standards of fairness, only to see their hopes dashed.
Political exhaustion has overtaken many Republicans and they badly want the Trust Fund issue behind them. If Christie fails to offer them relief, they may very well decide to find it on their own.