A New Jersey governor’s middle-class legacy is at stake as ticket hikes and tax hikes loom

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Two weeks ago, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy He was congratulating himself on the 20 tax cuts passed since he took office for middle-class families and seniors.

He said during the meeting: “Once again: This is how you build a stronger and more just country.” His State of the State address. “And more affordable.”

But once again, New Jersey needs money and is looking to raise taxes, fees and transit fares, drawing criticism from Republicans and consternation from fellow Democrats. So, with two years remaining in his second and final term, Murphy’s legacy could be damaged as he considers plans to raise the cost of bus and train tickets, consumer goods and gasoline — the burden on New Jersey’s middle-class residents that he spent years promising. To support.

The tip of the spear came on Wednesday, when the Murphy administration said it needed to Raising ticket prices by 15 percent For hundreds of thousands of New Jersey Transit riders, including some of the state’s most vulnerable residents and people who commute to New York City every day for work.

The fare increase is the first since Murphy took office in 2018, but it may be the first in a series of So-called revenue enhancers That will be needed to fill a nearly $1 billion budget gap at the nation’s third-largest transit agency and fund other parts of state government as pandemic aid is exhausted.

Backlash to the fare increase was swift from fellow Democrats — including the president of the state Senate, the chairman of the Senate Environment Committee and one of the leading candidates to replace Murphy in Trenton — and from Republicans in the legislative minority.

Especially in the state Senate, lawmakers are not enthusiastic about the fare increase.

Sen. Bob Smith, chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said the fare increases threaten to push people off trains just as the state’s environmental goals need more people using mass transit.

“I think it’s bad policy,” Smith said. “It’s also bad policy.”

Murphy took office raising taxes on the wealthy or corporations while lowering them for others. Now, in addition to higher prices, the administration is considering raising the gas tax as part of reauthorizing the state’s Transportation Trust Fund and increasing the cost of transportation. Sales tax as a way to boost NJ Transit.

No decisions have been made on either. But ironically, the sales tax was cut during Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s administration as part of a deal to increase the gas tax. Now both can rise.

It has not escaped some observers that Murphy is looking to increase the cost of public transit at the same time he has frozen tolls for drivers in New Jersey and is fighting tolls that New York wants to fund public transit there. Raising the cost of bus and train rides while struggling to keep car costs constant will only increase them further Questions about the governor’s commitment To reduce climate change and support transportation.

Murphy argues that he has kept prices steady since he took office even while increasing service. “We think this is a fair increase, as fair as FAIR,” he said in a television interview Thursday evening.

NJ Transit, for its part, expects the fares will turn away some customers, but ridership will still rise 4.2 percent in the upcoming budget year. The agency has gone nearly a decade without raising fares and points out that other transit agencies are talking about raising fares and cutting service, while NJ Transit is raising fares to avoid immediate cuts.

However, this ignores the budget deficit that will open in the summer of 2025. Even with the fare increases and a new plan to raise bus and train fares by 3 percent each year going forward, that gap remains about $800 million.

Steven Fulop, the Jersey City mayor who is running for governor in the 2025 election to replace Murphy, has repeatedly criticized Murphy for doing too little to protect public transit riders, including thousands of Jersey City residents who commute every day to New York.

“This flies in the face of the entire narrative that the governor and the administration have tried to paint over the last six years,” said Fulop, who leads a city very close to Manhattan that is sometimes called New York City’s Sixth Ward.

The charitable view of Murphy’s approach to transportation is that he kept prices constant while enhancing service. But a fare shock — the phrase “double-digit fare increase” — is basically impossible to sell politically, especially when those double-digit increases don’t even solve the fundamental problems that have plagued NJ Transit for more than 12 months.

“The Murphy Administration has delivered on its promise to continue increasing fares until staffing, capital funding and reliability improve significantly at NJ Transit, and we will continue to pursue additional ways to respond to NJ Transit’s financial needs,” spokesman for the governor Billy Lawrence said in an email.

Perhaps the only group that comes close to publicly supporting the governor’s fare hike is the state Business and Industry Association. In a carefully worded statement, the group praised Murphy for allowing the business tax surcharge to expire last year even though some lawmakers and progressive groups want to use business taxes to fund the agency.

“The fact of the matter is that there has never been a connection between the business surtax and NJ Transit,” Michel Sikerka, CEO of the industry group, said in a statement.

But that’s not how state Senate President Nick Scutari sees it. After last fall’s legislative elections, he explicitly floated the idea of ​​using a business corporate tax to fund the transit agency, an idea that Murphy rejected.

“We cannot simply rely on everyday riders to shoulder the burden of New Jersey Transit’s billion-dollar deficit, nor should we rely on one-time funding mechanisms to fill the gap,” Scutari, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin issued a more nuanced statement saying lawmakers would “explore options” to help NJ Transit and urged the agency to consider the impact of fares on riders.

So it’s not clear whether lawmakers will force the issue and send Murphy tax increases this year or whether all will push the decision to 2025, as the governor appears to prefer, based on recent public statements about the true $800 million cliff a year later.

Republicans in the House and Senate were quick to seize on the rate increases as another burden on New Jersey’s cost of living.

“the ruler. “Murphy said he would fix New Jersey Transit service if it killed him,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, a Republican budget official. “His only plan is to eliminate affordable public transportation for residents now that he doesn’t have to worry about state elections anymore.”

The administration is likely to argue that some transportation funding ideas would require a constitutional amendment to make permanent, including ideas similar to Scutari’s plan to use a business corporate tax or any attempt to use a payroll tax like the one New York has used. To largely solve the financing problems of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

But one of Murphy’s enemies in New York, MTA Chairman Janno Lieber, made one of his most pointed attacks on the governor on Wednesday during testimony before lawmakers in his state.

“Phil Murphy said he would fix New Jersey Transit if it killed him,” said Lieber, who runs the nation’s largest mass transit agency. “And I’m not sure… he’s not dying, and I’m not even sure if he’s trying.”

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