Guadagno joins Republican gas tax revolt
Asbury Park Press -
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno joined the Republican revolt against Gov. Chris Christie and the gas tax he signed into law by urging voters to defeat a ballot question that seeks a constitutional safeguard for the money raised by that increase, the largest in state history.
Guadagno has expressed her disapproval of the 23-cent-a-gallon increase before, but her lobbying against that related ballot question on Thursday drew a rare public criticism from Christie, a deeply unpopular governor whose lieutenant is expected to be preparing her own run for governor next year.
But Guadagno’s latest objection is one of several lawmakers are trying to raise in a complicated and decidedly uphill battle to keep New Jersey's gasoline prices among the lowest in the nation.
Next month's ballot includes a question - known as Public Question No. 2 - asking voters whether the state should constitutionally dedicate gas tax money to the Transportation Trust Fund that supports road and rail projects. Money was regularly diverted from the fund for years. This summer it ran out of money as Christie and lawmakers argued over how to replenish it. They agreed on raising the gas tax - the first in more than two decades - in exchange for a series of tax cuts that Christie says represent "tax fairness."
But the gas tax increase, which will take effect Tuesday, has angered residents and lawmakers who say an extra 23 cents a gallon will hurt drivers and there are alternative ways to fund transportation projects.
The tax increase will bring in about $1.2 billion in extra revenue a year. Coupled with about $800,000 in annual borrowing, the total investment in transportation projects is $16 billion over the next eight years. But unless the ballot question is approved, that money could be diverted to the state budget as in years past.
In her regular appearance on a segment called "Diggin' in with Kim" on NJ 101.5-FM, Guadagno said Thursday that the intent of the ballot question to constitutionally protect the gas tax money - she refers to it as a lock-box - is a "great idea." But she is "completely opposed" to the gas tax law because it authorizes up to $12 billion more in borrowing over the next eight years, according to the Office of Legislative Services.
"What we're really saying in this ballot question is that you have my permission - the taxpayers - have my permission to borrow $12 billion and pay for it with that 23 cents," Guadagno said. "You have to vote no."
That prompted a terse response from Christie spokesman Brian Murray.
“The governor supports ballot question 2 because it will ensure that all gas tax revenues can only be spent on roads, bridges and mass transit. This protects taxpayers from future wasteful spending by Democrat legislators. The governor finds it hard to believe that the lieutenant governor supports giving an unguarded pot of money to the Democrat-controlled Legislature, rather than on needed infrastructure projects," Murray said. "It must be a misunderstanding.”
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Secaucus, was more pointed in a statement released Thursday.
"The lieutenant governor seems to have a complete and total misunderstanding of the ballot question, which is very troublesome." Prieto said.
Guadagno did not respond to a message seeking to follow up on her comments on the radio.
Guadagno said she was prompted to take a second look at the ballot question by Bill Spadea, the station's morning show host with whom she appears every other Thursday. Spadea, a Republican who also hosts a nightly news show, has waged a campaign to defeat the ballot question to send a message from the public that "you are sick and tired of the corrupt backroom deals," he wrote on the station's website Tuesday.
Other Republicans in the Legislature have waged a campaign to repeal the gas tax – an unlikely goal, since the Democratic majority approved and Christie, a Republican, signed the tax. Sens. Christopher "Kip" Bateman of Somerset County and Mike Doherty of Warren County introduced the repeal bill last week, saying that an extra 23-cents a gallon is unaffordable and that people weren't "told the whole truth" because the law allows for increases to the tax.
Then there are Republicans opposed to other aspects of the new law. Sen. Jen Beck of Monmouth County said she is concerned about a four-member committee that must unanimously approve a capital projects certification before the Legislature can authorize transportation spending in a given year.
Beck, Bateman and Doherty are also opposed to the commitment from Democrats to use revenue from the gas tax to pay for extending the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line into Bergen County, calling it in a joint statement a "pork project" supported by a "bait and switch" tax deal.
It is rare for Republicans to so strongly buck Christie. It is rarer still for his No. 2, Guadagno, to buck him.
Guadagno came out earlier this month to say she will not vote for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump after video surfaced of him bragging about groping women unsolicited. Christie, on the other hand, is one of the biggest backers of Trump and is leading his transition team.
The gas tax dispute Thursday is notable for its timing and because, unlike voting, it is on a matter of public policy.
Guadagno has kept a low profile over the last nearly seven years she and Christie have been in office, but, with a likely announcement in the next few months that she is running for governor, she has raised her public presence with the regular radio appearance. And two weeks ago she said on the show that she was against the gas tax increase.
"I do not believe in any increased taxes for any reason," Guadagno said. But she anticipated a response from Christie, saying to Spadea when he raised the topic, "Now you're getting me in trouble with the governor."
The George Washington Bridge lane-closure trial has confirmed long-held suspicions that Christie and Guadagno have a strained relationship. Witnesses who have worked in the governor's office spoke of how Christie closely controlled Guadagno. David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official who has pleaded guilty to devising a traffic scheme to punish a Democratic mayor who wouldn't endorse Christie, said he recalled instances in which Guadagno was "frozen out" by Christie.
Last week Bridget Kelly, who is on trial with former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni for their alleged roles in the traffic plot, went into further detail of Christie and Guadagno's "tense" relationship. Kelly was a deputy chief to Christie and helped coordinate Guadagno's public events.
"There were times where she was kind of put in a box and wasn't permitted to do a whole lot" by Christie, Kelly said. "She wasn't allowed to come to meetings with the governor. She wasn't allowed to see his schedule. It was a stressful relationship."
Dustin Racioppi: firstname.lastname@example.org