Opinion: It’s Not About the Gas Tax, It’s About Not Trusting Trenton

Carl Golden | November 17, 2015 | Opinion
A first step toward selling a gas tax is ensuring that money earmarked for transportation won’t be siphoned off for another program

Carl Golden
The most recent poll in which 62 percent of New Jerseyans opposed increasing the state’s gasoline tax to pay for highway and bridge rehabilitation and repair was quickly construed as another expression of an entrenched anti-tax sentiment that has grown so strong that any such increases are to be resisted no matter the uses to which the revenue would be put.

Actually, the response was a wholly anticipated one from people already beleaguered by the highest average property taxes in the nation, residing and working in a state in which the cost of living consistently ranks in the top five nationally. The costs for the necessities of everyday life seem to rise inexorably. Affordable housing has become an oxymoron. The middle class finds itself squeezed relentlessly, and they see no relief anytime soon.

The mere mention of a tax increase of any sort and for whatever purpose — even replenishing the Transportation Trust Fund and rescuing it from bankruptcy next June — produces immediate pushback even though it may be a kneejerk reaction rather than a deliberative one.

The refusal to pay more — even if it’s a relatively modest $100 to $150 a year — is an expected reaction from people who feel they’re already stretched to their limit. But the poll results reveal a deep cynicism and loss of faith in government, a belief that it cannot be trusted to fulfill its promises and spend the additional tax revenue on what it pledges it will.

Each new account of pension-system manipulations that permit public officials to receive hefty retirement benefits while continuing to hold the same position, of double-dippers who are hired to a public position while collecting a public pension, or of massive payouts running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for unused sick or vacation time further infuriate taxpayers and stoke anger and mistrust.

Each revelation that tax money allocated to a particular program in the budget has been surreptitiously siphoned off to overcome a shortfall elsewhere serves as additional evidence that those in authority view the budget as a set of suggestions rather than a commitment to deliver promised services.

Granted, the amount necessary to restore viability to the TTF far exceeds that spent on doubled-up pension payments or severance payouts, but when these incidents come to light in the media, they symbolize a government more concerned with private interests than the greater public good.

It is not surprising then that in such an anti-government environment, people refuse to be swayed by gas-tax increase proponents who cite reams of statistics, lost productivity data, worsening traffic congestion and gridlock or by warnings of potential disaster looming if substandard bridges are not shored up to avoid a collapse.

People appear willing to suffer the inconvenience of bridge closures, detours, delays, and roads full of teeth-rattling potholes rather than send more tax money to Trenton because they’re not convinced it will go toward the intended purpose but will disappear down the black hole of wasteful spending.

The impending bankruptcy of the 30-year-old Transportation Trust Fund — the source of revenue to create and maintain a modern transportation system — hasn’t seemed to have entered the public consciousness as verging on crisis.

Legislators, academics, business leaders, and organized labor representatives have struggled to build public support for increasing the 14.5 cent gas tax. While there is no agreement at this point on what would be acceptable, Senate President Steve Sweeney raised some eyebrows with his suggestion that it should be sufficient to produce a $2 billion program.

Aside from infrequent comments from the governor that “everything is on the table” to replenish the trust fund, advocates have received little encouragement from the administration. Republican legislative leaders have hinted they may be open to an increase but only if it is accompanied by a reduction in another tax, such as the estate or inheritance tax. Sweeney’s $2 billion plan, however, faces certain rejection from legislative Republicans and the governor.

Supporters of a gas-tax increase face an exceedingly difficult task. It’s as much about regaining trust in government as it is about repairing roads.

They have, though, mistakenly seized on two points in making their case: The gas tax hasn’t been increased in 27 years and is the second lowest in the country. Most people feel that’s something to brag about rather than an argument to pay higher taxes. It’s a point of pride that the gas-tax increase has remained static since 1988 and holds a competitive edge in the region. Where’s the shame in that?

Their time would be better spent convincing people that all the revenue raised would be irrevocably allocated to the stated purpose, via constitutional dedication. There will be no creative bookkeeping to divert the funds, no budget sleight-of-hand to meet other demands.

They should argue, moreover, that should the TTF collapse and state aid to counties and municipalities vanish, the cost of all road and bridge repairs must be met locally. And the only way to do that is through the property tax.

The needs are clear and the consequences of failing to act should be spelled out on a granular level. Every county, every municipality has needs their resources are inadequate to meet and advocates of trust-fund renewal should personalize their arguments, delivering their message to those directly impacted.

It should not be the responsibility of private individuals or groups to rebuild trust in government, but in this case it is crucial to success. When legislators see that nearly two of every three New Jerseyans oppose a tax increase, their decision is an easy one.

For too many, the words “trust” and “government” are mutually exclusive. Like Humpty Dumpty, putting them back together is going to require more than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.