A proposed tax on parking fees in New Jersey’s six largest communities barely made it out of the Democratic-controlled Assembly yesterday, after taking a wave of criticism from Republican lawmakers.
Passing the legislation moves the proposal one step closer to becoming law, but it also raised eyebrows, clearing the lower house by only one vote, despite the Democrats’ significant advantage in that chamber.
Sponsors of the legislation said their goal is to help the state’s largest communities raise more revenue to pay for pedestrian-safety improvements at mass-transit stations. But GOP lawmakers said it’s just the latest tax hike to be proposed by the Democrats. They also pointed to poll results released yesterday that showed New Jersey residents are becoming increasingly unhappy with their quality of life.
The narrow vote also came roughly a week before Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is scheduled to lay out his vision for the state’s budget for the next fiscal year, one that could include another round of tax-hike proposals.
Only six municipalities would be permitted to charge the parking-fee tax, because the bill restricts it to only those that had a population of at least 100,000 as of the most recent five-year estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. They are Edison, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Woodbridge.
The proposed tax would be a 3.5 percent levy on fees charged at all public and private facilities other than those that serve “premises occupied solely as a private one- or two-family dwelling,” according to the bill.
The measure wouldn’t force any of the six towns to levy the proposed tax, but instead would give them the option of doing so. It would also earmark the revenue that would be raised through the tax to funding projects that “improve pedestrian access to mass-transit stations.” That could include “the construction of bridges, tunnels, platforms, walkways, elevators, escalators, and stairways directly related to mass-transit pedestrian accessibility,” according to the bill.
If enacted, the tax could be imposed in addition to state sales taxes that are levied on fees charged for “parking, storing, or garaging a motor vehicle,” with some exclusions. Generally, those exclusions include residential parking, employee parking at employer-owned facilities, and all municipal parking, including metered parking.
Newark catches a break
Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-Essex) stressed during the debate in the Assembly yesterday how the additional tax revenue could help Newark, which is one of the cities located in the legislative district she represents.
“What this will help do in my community is help provide accessibility to mass transit,” Speight said. “We have the airport in our community, we have the theaters (and) we have big corporations.”
But Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) questioned whether the communities that would be able to get new revenue from the proposal are doing enough to ensure that it would be used only as a last resort.
“We don’t believe that there are no other options, meaning we are now authorizing a local municipality — not the voters — to determine whether there’s a new tax,” Bramnick said.
Unhappy NJ residents
Moments earlier, Assemblyman Anthony Bucco Jr. (R-Morris) pointed to the results of Monmouth University’s latest “Quality of Life Index” poll that showed New Jersey residents’ approval of their home state is at an all-time low. While the survey results released yesterday morning found 50 percent of the state’s residents would rate New Jersey as either a “good” or “excellent” place to live, they mark a noteworthy drop from the 62 percent measured in 2016, and the 59 percent in 2017. They also continue a downward trend as 54 percent was measured last year.
“The state rating has bounced around the last few years, but this latest result marks a precipitous drop from any prior reading,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “This is a huge warning sign for the state’s political leadership.
The poll results don’t specifically reflect residents’ views on taxes, but Bucco suggested several new taxes that have either been adopted or put up for consideration in recent months by majority Democrats are a major factor.
“We have to stop the tax after tax after tax (mentality),” Bucco Jr. said. “Our middle-class and our constituents can no longer afford it.”
Just say ‘no’
“Take a bold stand and say ‘no’ to another new tax,” he said.
Despite his plea, the bill was approved by the Assembly moments later in a 41-33 vote. In the 80-member Assembly, legislation cannot advance without getting at least 41 votes in favor. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Democrats hold a commanding, 54-26 advantage in the lower house, so the slim margin in the Assembly yesterday suggests the GOP’s criticism could be having an effect on Democrats just as the budget season is about to heat up. Murphy is scheduled to release his fiscal 2020 budget proposal on March 5.
Perhaps one bright spot revealed in the latest Monmouth poll results is that New Jersey residents seem more content with their own communities compared to the state as a whole. While only 50 percent said they would rate New Jersey as a “good” or “excellent” place to live, 67 percent said they would rate their own town or city that way.
“The question is how much longer this can go on before statewide problems override the benefits of living in their local community,” Murray said.