Gov. Jon Corzine has decided to put off for now an increase in New Jersey's gasoline tax as a way to help bail out the Transportation Trust Fund. Instead, he proposes to refinance $1.8 billion in trust-fund debt to save $105 million in annual debt service and to direct an additional $90 million from existing gas taxes and tolls into the fund. These steps would enable the state to increase the fund's present indebtedness and keep the highway and mass-transit programs viable for another five years.
This newspaper has advocated a gas-tax hike as a way to channel more money to the fund. We've pointed out that the New Jersey gas tax is one of the lowest in the nation, that a substantial portion of it is paid by out-of-state motorists, and that the tax is a classic user fee, benefiting most directly those who pay it. To that extent, we find the governor's decision to defer a gas-tax hike disappointing.
But his plan to dedicate all revenue raised by the gas tax to transportation is a good step, and so is his intention to create an independent oversight panel to ensure that trust-fund borrowing is not diverted to short-term expenses, a common abuse in the past. Moreover, there are plausible reasons behind his strategy -- reasons beyond the not insignificant detail that he promised during the campaign not to raise the gas tax this year (a promise we criticized), and he is keeping that promise.
The governor acknowledges that a gas-tax increase -- and mass-transit fare hikes, as well -- may be necessary before the end of the five-year stay that this plan will win for him. It would be better if the state took those steps now instead of relying on a temporary remedy. The bottom line, however, is that doing nothing is not an option.
As I've said before, I support a gas-tax increase and I hate the idea of increasing debtload. I expect someone to label me a tax-and-spend liberal in the comments (it could be worse; I could be one of the cut-taxes-and-spend-hand-over-fist-increasing-debt-exponentially Republicans) but I don't truly believe we're taxing adequately on our gas as we should. But I understand why the Governor has proposed doing this now, and I can only hope his finished proposals for the TTF include more to get us out of the hole which we've dug.