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NJ Legislative Leaders Can’t Even Agree to a Sit-Down on Transportation Funding

Prieto has called for a summit, but Sweeney remains hopeful of bypassing Gov. Christie

conference room

For over a month, political leaders in Trenton have been unable to find consensus on a way to renew the state’s nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund, and now it appears they can’t even agree on whether their next move should be getting together to work out their differences.

Legislative leaders from both parties in the Assembly say they want to organize a transportation-funding summit to expedite an end to the transportation-funding stalemate, which has led to an ongoing shutdown of road, bridge, and rail projects throughout the state that industry experts say is hurting New Jersey’s economy.

The top Republican in the Senate is also willing to attend a meeting, but that’s where things start to get a little dicey. It’s unclear right now whether Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney -- who have had the deepest disagreements during the impasse -- will agree to participate in the proposed TTF summit. And Sweeney (D-Gloucester) instead seems committed to convincing lawmakers to try and work around the Republican governor.

So with no summit scheduled and no vote on TTF legislation on the agenda, there’s not much hope at this point that a compromise can be reached before the start of the new school year, meaning buses could be forced back onto roadways bottlenecked with numerous detours thanks to the stalled construction work.

The main sticking point since the impasse began at the end of June has been tax cuts that Christie and other Republicans are insisting be passed along with a 23-cent gas-tax increase gas-tax increase that Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) have proposed to bring in new funding for the TTF.

The trust fund’s last five-year finance plan expired on June 30, and because the TTF is deep in debt and Christie and lawmakers have not extended its borrowing ceiling, the state’s current, 14.5-cent gas tax is only bringing in enough revenue to help cover debt payments, leaving no money for new projects. The governor ordered a halt of state-funded transportation projects last month, saying he needed to ensure the remaining dollars are available to fund necessary projects and emergencies.

Christie wants to pair the gas-tax hike with a $1.6 billion sales-tax cut. Prieto initially agreed to go along with that plan, but he and Sweeney are both now backing a more modest $900 million package of phased-in tax reductions that includes the elimination of New Jersey’s estate tax.

For the last several weeks the two Democratic leaders have been trying to recruit enough votes from Republicans to secure an override of Christie’s expected veto of the plan that they prefer. But so far they have been unable to do so.

Last week, after the Senate decided not to hold a vote on any TTF bill, Prieto said it was time to consider organizing a summit with legislative leaders from both parties and the governor to resolve their differences.

“It's clear to me at this point that the only way to move forward is for the governor and the legislative leaders from both parties to get together inside the same room and hash this out once and for all,” Prieto said. “No one is going to enjoy the solution to this crisis, but New Jersey cannot go without transportation funding.”

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) also agreed with the idea of having a TTF summit.

“It is time to work together to find a solution,” said Bramnick, who had previously called for a special legislative session on the transportation-funding issue. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) confirmed yesterday that he would also be willing to participate in a TTF summit.

But Sweeney seemed upset last week when Prieto called for the meeting, suggesting during an interview with NJTV’s Mary Alice Williams that more work should first be put into trying to get the votes needed to override Christie.

Democrats hold majorities in both houses, but they don’t have big enough margins to bypass a veto on their own. It takes 27 votes in the Senate, where the Democrats have a 24-16 majority. In the Assembly, Democrats have a 52-28 margin, but 54 votes are required for an override. Republicans in the Legislature have never broken ranks with the governor for a veto override since he took office in early 2010, even on measures that have passed both houses with wide support.

After Prieto called for the TTF summit last week, Sweeney held onto hope that he could muster up enough votes for an override.

“We need to at least try to accomplish the plan we agreed to do in both houses,” Sweeney told Williams during the NJTV interview.

Sweeney’s office did not respond yesterday when asked if he is willing to attend the TTF summit proposed by Prieto.

The Senate leader, meanwhile, has also quarreled openly with Christie on the TTF issue after the two men traded proposals in July. When those talks failed to produce any progress, Sweeney predicted the impasse could last beyond the November presidential election, and he accused Christie of “auditioning for Donald Trump’s cabinet,” a reference to the governor’s close ties to the Republican presidential nominee.

Christie, for his part, also upset Sweeney last month after he openly dismissed the ideas that the Democratic leader had been swapping with him. But more recently Christie has taken on a more conciliatory tone, saying during a news conference earlier this month that he’s open to compromise on the TTF.

“The scenario to get out of it is people have to get in a room to negotiate,” Christie said. “Everybody’s going to have to give a little.”

Still, when asked yesterday about the TTF summit pitched by Prieto, Christie press secretary Brian Murray did not say whether the governor would be willing to participate.

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