N.J. Gov. Corzine Searches for Transportation Funding

Fri July 18, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Tom Hester Jr.



TRENTON, N.J. (AP) So now that legislators and Gov. Jon S. Corzine have sealed up a new state budget and approved borrowing $3.9 billion without voter approval for school construction, what’s next?

For legislators, not much. They’re taking the summer off.

For Corzine, his attention turns back to transportation funding.

Mayors, meanwhile, claim homeowners are about to get slammed.

Corzine said he plans in the coming weeks to unveil a revised plan to fund transportation projects. He won’t comment on what that plan might unveil, but it’s expected to involve another bid to increase highway tolls to pay for highway, bridge and mass transit work.

The state transportation fund is to become consumed by debt in 2011, and the state faces an Oct. 1 federal deadline to find its share of money for a new Hudson River rail tunnel.

The federal government has expressed a willingness to contribute $3 billion to the $7.5 billion project, with New Jersey and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey paying the rest.

The Democratic governor earlier this year proposed significantly increasing highway tolls for the next 75 years to pay state debt and fund transportation, but that plan lacked public and legislative support.

He continues to express hesitancy about increasing the gas tax, but said ideas such as placing tolls on free highways are worthy of consideration.

Senate President Richard J. Codey has suggested letting private developers build lanes alongside the turnpike and parkway and charging drivers extra to use the new lanes, which in theory would be less clogged.

“We’re collecting a lot of good ideas,’’ Corzine said.

Republicans contend the $32.86 billion budget signed June 30 by Corzine should have already resolved transportation funding.

They proposed diverting $500 million in motor vehicle fees annually to transportation projects, but Corzine rejected the plan.

“The Corzine budget opens the door for toll hikes or gas tax hikes in the near future, at a time when New Jersey motorists can least afford them,’’ said Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, R-Morris.

Corzine’s budget included $2.9 billion in cuts amid state fiscal woes, but Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. said it didn’t do enough.

“This spending plan will inevitably lead to calls for higher taxes or tolls because it fails to address the state’s transportation needs,’’ said Kean, R-Union.

Democrats contend transportation funding need not be resolved through the budget, which they argued sets the tone amid tough financial times.

Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney called it “probably one of the most honest budgets that we’ve ever seen.’’

“Probably the most painful one, but an honest one,’’ said Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, said the budget, unlike other recent plans, wasn’t based on overly optimistic tax revenue projections, new taxes, borrowing and moves such as relying on lawsuit settlements or selling state property. She said the budget lacks pet projects legislators typically added to the budget with little review.

“These are relics of the past that should be relegated to the history books,’’ Buono said.

The budget boosts school aid by about $600 million, but cuts municipal aid by about $162 million. Corzine insists the increased school aid shouldn’t mean increases in what are already the nation’s highest property taxes, since schools account for 55 percent of the tax, but mayors are unconvinced.

Bill Dressel, executive director of the state League of Municipalities, said the budget “represents a retreat from what was believed to be a strong commitment to help our taxpayers.’’

“Mayors and municipal administrations must consider layoffs, reduced services, severance agreements and worst of all increased property taxes for additional revenues,’’ he said.

Senate President Richard J. Codey disagrees. The 34-year legislator called the spending plan, “the best budget I’ve seen,’’ and said it sends a message to local governments.

“Get out your scissors and cut,’’ said Codey, D-Essex. “People cannot afford the spending any more.’’