Trio of Proposed Ballot Questions Could Reshape NJ’s Financial Future

NJ Spotlight- New Jersey voters could play a big role next year in determining what the state’s fiscal landscape will look like for the next several decades, thanks to a flurry of proposed ballot questions that Democratic legislative leaders have introduced.

At stake if three proposed constitutional amendments all pass legislative hurdles in the coming months is funding for the state Transportation Trust Fund and the public-employee pension system, as well as the future of Atlantic City’s in-state monopoly on legalized gambling.

Taken together, the three issues represent arguably the biggest problems left unresolved by Gov. Chris Christie during his two terms in office -- the soon to be broke transportation fund, the grossly underfunded pension system, and the economic collapse of Atlantic City.

They could also send a clear message just a year before the next gubernatorial election about whether New Jersey voters want to simply maintain the status quo or lay the groundwork for major structural changes going forward.

Under current plans, voters would be asked to weigh in on all three topics next November, which is now shaping up to be a busy election with a presidential contest already on the 2016 ballot.

The three proposed referendums won’t need approval from Christie, a Republican now seeking the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination, to get on that ballot next year. Instead, they would need to pass each house of the Democratic-controlled Legislature with a simple majority before the current legislative session ends on January 11, and again during the first half of the new session that begins on January 12.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have also talked about asking voters about a fourth issue, an expansion of voting rights though a resolution seeking a referendum to get around a veto Christie issued earlier this year that has yet to be submitted.

But taking on the state’s most immediate fiscal concern is the constitutional amendment proposed on Friday by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) that would ask voters next year to approve a dedication of all revenue raised by fuel taxes in New Jersey solely for the Transportation Trust Fund.

The trust fund pays for road, bridge and rail projects throughout the state, but it’s on course right now to run out of money for new projects by the middle of next year.

New Jersey levies taxes on gasoline, diesel fuel, and the gross receipts of petroleum products, with most of the revenue raised by those taxes already dedicated to the trust fund. But due to the fund’s significant debt, there will only be enough money coming in to pay off the credit-card bill as of June 30, 2016.

In the short term, approval of Prieto’s constitutional amendment would produce, according to legislative estimates, an additional $40 million from the fuel taxes for the trust fund, which already spends more than $1.5 billion annually and also generates matching federal dollars.

But more importantly, it would lay the groundwork for significantly more dedicated revenue coming in for transportation projects if any of the state’s fuel taxes are increased in the future, something many are expecting could occur within the coming months. And it would also ensure that any new revenues from a fuel-tax increase couldn’t be raided for other purposes by governors or lawmakers.

“Taxpayers must be confident every cent raised by these taxes goes to the right purpose -- rebuilding and maintaining our roads and bridges,” Prieto said. “This is something we can all agree upon.”

Lawmakers in recent weeks have talked about a bipartisan deal that would increase the state’s gasoline tax in response to cuts to other taxes, like the estate tax, though a formal plan has yet to be put forward. Such a plan would also need approval from Christie. His office did not respond to a request for comment on Prieto’s proposed referendum on Friday.

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