Senate leader says no gas tax hike

February 20, 2008 12:34:50 PM PST
A top Senate leader on Wednesday said highway tolls should increase only to pay for transportation improvements, casting further doubt on Gov. Jon S. Corzine's plan to boost tolls to reduce state debt.

Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney told The Associated Press Corzine must find an alternative to toll hikes to pay at least half of $32 billion in state debt.

"As far as cutting state debt, he's going to have to work with something else besides this to do it," said Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

Sweeney said the gas tax shouldn't increase, as some lawmakers suggest.

He said the $2.5 billion in proposed budget cuts set to be unveiled next week by Corzine - along with future limits on state spending and borrowing and renewing efforts to approve public worker health and retirement benefit reforms - would instead tackle state fiscal woes.

"The way to fix it is to cut spending, shrink the government and go forward," Sweeney said.

Corzine's wants to increase tolls 50 percent in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. The increases would include inflation adjustments, and after 2022 tolls would increase every four years until 2085 to reflect inflation.

The money would pay debt and fund transportation, but no legislator has endorsed the Democratic governor's plan.

Sweeney said tolls should increase only to improve toll roads, including the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. Corzine's administration has said a 45 percent toll increase is needed to widen the toll roads and fix bridges on them.

"If you're driving the turnpike or the parkway, and I'm improving my commute, and I've raised tolls to do that, people understand that," Sweeney said.

Sweeney's comments come after Assemblyman John Wisniewski said he wants to increase the state's gas tax 18 cents and combine it with toll hikes to fund transportation, but Sweeney said lawmakers won't approve increasing the 14.5 cent per gallon gas tax.

As part of his plan to revamp troubled state finances, Corzine plans to freeze state spending in the budget he's to introduce next Tuesday. The plan would be for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Corzine said the spending freeze will mean about $2.5 billion in budget cuts, with cuts necessary to offset rising costs.

"The governor is pleased that an active dialogue has emerged on how to put New Jersey on the path to fiscal responsibility while also recognizing the need to fund critical, long term infrastructure improvements," Corzine spokeswoman Lilo Stainton said.

Possible moves include an early retirement program for state workers, eliminating the Department of Personnel and property tax rebates for households that earn more than $150,000, reduced hours at parks and motor vehicle agencies and funding cuts for hospitals, municipalities and state colleges.

"This governor is very serious about making some real cuts, and I think all of us have to recognize that this is what we have to do," Sweeney said. "But besides cuts we have to deal with the cost of government. We've got a government we can't afford."

Legislators are hesitant about an early retirement program because it boosts pension costs.

So Sweeney and Sen. Nicholas Scutari said legislators will renew efforts to reform public worker benefits. Changes were approved last year as part of a new state worker contract, though other proposals were left out. Sweeney said legislators will push for the following reforms for newly hired workers:
- Eliminate pensions for part-time workers.

- Limit employees to one publicly funded pension.

- Eliminate a fitness program that allows retirees to avoid paying 1.5 percent of their pension to health care.

- Offer incentives to public employees to refuse taxpayer-funded health insurance.

- Eliminate a 9 percent pension increase approved in 2001.

Scutari, D-Union, who chaired a special 2006 commission on public worker benefits, said a "dramatically different" benefit plan was needed, such as eliminating pensions for new workers and replacing them with 401(k)-style retirement plans.

"I think that would be a step in the right direction," Scutari said.

But Rae Roeder, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1033, which represents state workers, said they would fight a renewed effort to redo worker benefits.

"It was just handled in negotiations," Roeder said. "We got a four-year contract, and now they want to take stuff away from us? Oh, give me a break."