NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto reach terms on new Transportation Trust Fund Agreement.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto announced Friday that they had come to terms on a new agreement to replenish the state’s depleted Transportation Trust Fund and gradually phase out the estate tax.

The plan calls for a 23-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, which Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Prieto (D-Secaucus) say will generate $1.2 billion each year in new revenue and provide support for approximately $2 billion in annual infrastructure investments. The agreement also calls for several concessions in conjunction with the gas tax hike, such as a plan to gradually phase out New Jersey’s estate tax over the next three to four years.

Details:

  • The attention will now shift to Gov. Chris Christie, who late last month agreed on an 11th-hour plan with Prieto to tie a 23-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase with a decrease in the state’s sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent. Sweeney didn’t support the agreement, citing budget concerns;
  • the new agreement, the plan to phase out the estate tax is similar to a bipartisan bill cosponsored months ago by state Sens:
  • the exclusion rate on the estate tax, which currently applies to inheritances valued at $675,000 or more, would be upped to $2 million beginning Jan. 1 and then to the federal level of $5.4 million by Jan. 1, 2018. By Jan. 1, 2020, the tax would be completely eliminated;
  • the plan would also increase the threshold for retirement income exemptions for married couples to $100,000 over four years. Exclusion rates would be increased to $50,000 for married couples filing separately and $75,000 for single taxpayers.
  • the plan also calls for offering a $3,000 personal exemption on state income taxes to qualified veterans, a $500 annual income tax deduction to in-state motorists making up to $100,000 per year and an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit program to 40 percent.

 

N.J. Supreme Court upholds freeze on pension cost-of-living adjustments

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled 6-to-1 Thursday that the state can continue to freeze cost-of-living adjustment payments to those collecting public pensions.

The decision upholds a 201l reform law to suspend the payments that was supported by Democrats and signed by Christie. According to the Associated Press, the ruling will save the state approximately $17.5 billion in added pension liabilities.

Thursday’s ruling received cautious optimism from Moody’s Investors Service, which said it “eliminates a major threat to the state’s fiscal stability, which is already challenged by narrow reserves and large, rapidly growing pension costs.”

“New Jersey’s finances have been more stable in recent years, and the state projects that 2016 reserves will remain on target and above prior years at $550 million,” Moody’s said. “However, reserves at this level will provide limited cushion against further budget volatility.”

Earlier this week, the Assembly Judiciary Committee advanced a measure that seeks to task voters with deciding on a constitutional amendment to require regular pension payments.

New Jersey Officials Close Out May with a Flourish

 

Atlantic City Bailout Bills Pass Both NJ Houses

New Jersey legislation that aims to help Atlantic City financially recover from poor gaming revenue and successful tax appeals now awaits Gov. Chris Christie’s signature, after passing both houses of the state Legislature on Thursday.

During their regular voting sessions, the New Jersey Senate and Assembly approved a pair of bills that would give city officials 150 days come up with a financial plan to avoid bankruptcy and would create a tax deferral arrangement for casinos.

The two Senate bills evolved from Senate and Assembly proposals that had been merged and advanced Monday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, giving rise to new bailout legislation that leaves collective bargaining agreements intact and gives officials of the struggling resort town more time to hash out its budget before state officials intervene.

The two points of contention had sparked showdowns between Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Bergen, and Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, but lawmakers hailed the latest versions of the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act, or S1711, and the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan, memorialized in S1715.

The two sides had worked on a series of amendments to the Senate versions to bring them in line with the Assembly’s vision. For example, casinos are not allowed to opt out of the PILOT program, and the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act — formerly known as the “state takeover” bill, before Prieto and unions decried the stripping of the city’s autonomy — now extends early retirement incentives to all full-time employees to save money.

The Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act won 32-5 approval in the Senate and 60-12 passage in the Assembly. The PILOT bill got 33-4 approval in the Senate and 61-12 passage in the Assembly.

Twelve casinos had made up 70 percent of annual property taxes in Atlantic City as of 2013. But competition from surrounding states and other factors have left the city with eight operating casinos, after four closed in 2014, and a tax base that dropped from $20.5 billion in 2010 to $7.3 billion in 2015.

The dire situation prompted Christie in January 2015 to tap an emergency manager for the resort town, after which Moody’s Investors Service slashed the municipality’s bond rating.

The pressure to come up with a plan to avoid insolvency reached fever pitch in recent months as city officials braced for a shutdown and battled legal wars.

Previously, the state Department of Education sued the town to ensure its school district got its share of taxes, although a state court judge last month declined to freeze the city’s assets. Compounding the fiscal woes are $240 million the city allegedly owes to bondholders and $150 million for successful tax appeal, including $88 million allegedly owed to Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.

Prieto and Sweeney locked horns again earlier this month, when Prieto said the Assembly was not going to consider the Senate’s state takeover, which was the only plan Christie had said he would endorse to fix the resort town.

NJ Assembly Passes $15 Minimum Wage Bill

The New Jersey Assembly on Thursday advanced legislation that would gradually boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour in phased increases over the next five years, an initiative touted by the chamber’s Democratic leaders as a tool to help reverse the trend of poverty in the state.

Unveiled in February, the bill previously passed the Assembly Labor Committee and now sits before the Senate after its 42-30-1 passage Thursday. The legislation heeds the call of the nationwide Fight for $15 movement and its advancement comes a month after New York and California signed the initiative into law.

Assembly Bill 15 would increase the state’s current base hourly rate of $8.38 to $10.10 at the start of next year and make incremental boosts annually from 2018 to 2021 until the minimum wage is $15

Stating their case for the proposal’s importance in the Garden State, the bill’s primary sponsors cited Legal Services of New Jersey’s estimates that the state is home to 2.8 million adults and 800,000 children living in poverty as of 2014, marking a 40 percent increase in the poor population since the recession of 2008, according to LSNJ estimates.

The take-home pay for a full-time minimum wage worker is less than $18,000 a year in a state that has among the highest costs of living in the country, the sponsors said.

The bill’s primary backers also include Assembly Budget Chairman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic/Bergen, and Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker, D-Essex.

An identical Senate version of the legislation sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, was advanced by that chamber’s Labor Committee last week.

Republican leaders have expressed opposition to the legislation. In statements issued when the Senate proposal was announced, Sen. Christopher J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove said seniors and small businesses would be hit particularly hard while Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean said the minimum wage increase — along with pushes to mandate paid sick leave and add more flexible leave and benefit options — would make life more unaffordable for all New Jerseyans.

The Ailing Transportation Trust Fund

With a crisis in Atlantic City apparently averted, Trenton’s attention will turn — after the Memorial Day weekend — to the virtually exhausted Transportation Trust Fund.

With competing schemes to revive the fund being floated, there will be plenty to argue about. And just to keep things interesting, lawmakers will also be pushing to wrap up a new state budget by the June 30 deadline.

The trust fund pays for more than $3 billion in annual road, bridge, and rail-network improvements, with money that comes from federal matching funds and New Jersey’s 10.5-cent per-gallon tax on gasoline and the its 4-cent per-gallon tax on the gross receipts of petroleum products. Revenue from the sales tax and highway tolls also help subsidize annual state spending of about $1.6 billion under a five-year financing plan that Christie put forward in 2011.

But money from the gas tax will be enough to service only the fund’s extensive debt starting July 1.

Up for debate: whether to create a new “tax-fairness package” that makes cut in the general budget to offset a gas-tax hike that is set aside of for transportation projects.

The alternative? A pay-as-you go system that trims existing budget lines but primarily relies on an expectation of tax revenue to grow each year.

The pay-as-you-go folks, led by Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) dug in launching a petition drive that’s intended to push back against the bipartisan tax-fairness package, which has gained momentum in the State House in recent weeks.

Gov. Chris Christie will also have a say, and over the next month the issue will likely put to a test two of his longest-standing records. He’s yet to approve a major tax increase since he took office early in 2010, and he’s yet to be overridden by a Legislature that’s controlled by Democrats, but not with veto-proof majorities.

Many in Trenton expect the issue will eventually be resolved with a bipartisan deal that will involve hiking either the 10.5-cent tax on gasoline, the 4-cent tax on petroleum products, or some combination of increases that will affect both levies. New Jersey has the second-lowest gas tax in the nation, which was last raised in 1988.

Democrats have been working diligently behind the scenes to secure votes for a gas-tax increase – which they’ve yet to define publicly – by offering up a series of tax cuts to entice Republicans into endorsing what’s being described as a broader “tax fairness” deal. They include proposals to phase out the estate tax over five years; increase current state income tax exemptions for retirement income like pensions and annuities; create a state income tax deduction for charitable contributions; and increase the state version of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

For his part, Christie hasn’t ruled out a gas-tax increase, but he also hasn’t clearly defined what he would like to see in any deal that could win his support. When asked about the issue by a woman calling into his monthly radio show on NJ 101.5 FM radio earlier this week, Christie said he expects to hear more from lawmakers now that they’ve resolved their differences on the Atlantic City rescue.

But Beck, the Monmouth County senator, has been clear in her opposition to a gas-tax increase. She’s launched an online petition to rally opposition that a recent Quinnipiac University poll measured to be 54 percent of New Jersey’s registered voters.

As part of a trust fund renewal plan that she’s put forward, Beck introduced two bills yesterday that are designed to help free up cash in the annual budget to pay for $1.6 billion in transportation upgrades each year through the 2023 fiscal year.

One bill seeks to save about $50 million annually by consolidating several state transportation agencies like New Jersey Transit and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. But the bulk of the new revenue would come from another, more controversial measure that would reduce healthcare benefits for public workers at all levels and then repurpose most of the savings for transportation projects.

Beck’s plan is also relying on some new borrowing and at least 3 percent growth in annual revenues. She would also raise additional funds by increasing motor-vehicle fines and diverting more money from the state’s Clean Energy Fund.

Her efforts drew support from the New Jersey chapter of the conservative Americans for Prosperity organization, which has been making phone calls to stoke grassroots opposition to a gas-tax hike.

But transportation advocates and public-worker unions criticized Beck’s proposal yesterday, questioning whether her revenue sources and forecasts are realistic.

Projections for 3 percent annual growth over seven years comes as the Christie administration was just forced to scale back its own tax-collection forecasts by a combined $1 billion for the current budget and the fiscal year that will begin on July 1. Growth has also been slow over the last decade, with revenues up just over 6 percent, from $31.2 billion during the 2007 fiscal year to a projected $33.2 billion for the current fiscal year.

Hospitals avoid new local-tax burden-Energy and Environment Bills Signed Into Law

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bipartisan proposal that would have required nonprofit hospitals to pay new fees to municipal governments to help cover the cost of police, fire, and other local services in exchange for maintaining the property-tax exemption they have long enjoyed. The bill was prompted by a landmark state tax-court ruling in 2014 that successfully challenged the property-tax exemption enjoyed by nonprofit Morristown Medical Center, given that it also operates several for-profit services at the same Morris County site.

The pocket veto encourages uncertainty where the bill could have secured the legal future of hospitals. Legislators intended their efforts to avoid similar lawsuits around the state, but with the veto the state may see an untimely increase in litigation.

The move was more of a disappointment than a surprise, legislators said.

Energy and Environment Bills Signed Into Law

S-2617/A-3944 (Cardinale/Garcia, McKeon, Auth, Eustace, Pinkin) – Requires DEP to adopt regulations to allow cultivation of commercial shellfish species in certain coastal and inner harbor waters for research, educational, or restoration purposes; requires community engagement process for revision thereof

S-2880/A-4704 (Lesniak, T. Kean/Diegnan, Wisniewski) – Provides up to $25 million in tax credits under Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant Program for certain infrastructure at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

S-3321/A-4927 (Smith, Van Drew, Bateman/Spencer, Rumana) – Authorizes DEP to require public access to waterfront and adjacent shoreline as condition of waterfront development approvals and CAFRA permits

A-1726wGR/S-308 (Eustace, Lagana, Mosquera, Vainieri Huttle, Wimberly/Gordon) – Amends “Flood Hazard Area Control Act” to require DEP to take certain actions concerning delineations of flood hazard areas and floodplains

A-1812/S-2717 (Mosquera, Mazzeo, Andrzejczak/Cruz-Perez, Oroho, Jones) – Extends protections of the new vehicle “lemon law” to new farm tractors purchased or leased in New Jersey

A-1958/S-1848 (Allen, Van Drew) – Concerns exemptions from permits for certain agricultural activities under “Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act”

A-2839/S-2620 (Burzichelli, Space, Phoebus/Oroho, Turner) – “New Jersey Rural Microenterprise Act”

A-3257wGR/S-2125 (Andrzejczak, Mazzeo, Burzichelli/Van Drew) – Provides that determination by county agriculture development board or State Agriculture Development Committee as to what qualifies as farm-based recreational activity in pinelands protection area is binding on Pinelands Commission

A-3850/S-2467 (DeAngelo, Eustace, Mazzeo, Pintor Marin, Benson/Turner, Singer) – Requires BPU to establish procedures allowing electric power and gas supplier customers to switch energy suppliers

Energy and Environment Bills  pocket vetoed

S-564/A-4186 (Smith, Bateman/Eustace, McKeon, Spencer, Benson) – Establishes “Solar Roof Installation Warranty Program” in EDA and transfers $2 million from societal benefits charge to initially fund program

S-1414/A-2405 (Smith, Bateman/Eustace, Benson, Johnson) – Concerns low emission and zero emission vehicles; establishes Clean Vehicle Task Force

SCS for S-1420/ACS for A-1603 (Beach, Whelan, Smith, Sweeney, Bateman, Thompson/Spencer, Eustace, Quijano, Wimberly) – Requires paint producers to implement or participate in paint stewardship program

S-2491/A-4069 (Smith/Danielsen, Pinkin, Benson) – Establishes position of State Oceanographer

S-2711/A-4128 (Smith, Whelan/Mazzeo, DeAngelo, Spencer, Singleton, McKeon, Danielsen, Johnson) –Permits BPU to approve qualified wind energy project; requires BPU to provide application periods for those projects

S-2769/AS for ACS for A-4197, 4206 (Smith, Bateman/Andrzejczak, McKeon, Spencer, Pintor Marin, Dancer, Vainieri Huttle) – Implements 2014 constitutional dedication of CBT revenues for certain environmental purposes; revises State’s open space, farmland, and historic preservation programs

S-3416/A-4808 (Lesniak, Sarlo/Eustace, Gusciora) – Prohibits possession, transport, import, export, processing, sale, or shipment of parts and products of certain animal species threatened with extinction

A-2586/S-1796 (DeAngelo, Quijano, Benson/Greenstein) – Establishes “Energy Infrastructure Study Commission”

A-4384/S-3145 (DeAngelo, Pintor Marin, Danielsen, Schaer, Johnson/Whelan) – Requires BPU to render decision on case within 12 months of final public hearing or hold another public hearing prior to deciding case

A-4763/SS for SCS for S-2973 (McKeon, Spencer, Pinkin/Smith, Bateman, Greenstein, Codey) – Revises “Electronic Waste Management Act”

A-4773/S-3146 (Eustace, Garcia, Gusciora/Lesniak) – Prohibits possession and transport of parts and products of certain animals at PANYNJ airports and port facilities

 

New Jersey Legislative Leadership Split Over Revenue Sources for Transportation Trust Fund

New Jersey is already one the nation’s most indebted states, ranking third behind only California and New York when it comes to net tax-supported debt, according to the latest version of the annual state debt report, which was released last year. And borrowing has gone up by roughly 50 percent in just the past decade.

Legislative leaders, nevertheless,  say they are close to reaching final agreement on a package whose key components will include as much as $2 billion in combined annual revenue from borrowing and a likely increase in state fuel taxes to support transportation funding. New Jersey needs a new plan for funding transportation projects in place by the middle of 2016.

Still Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson)  disagree over how much money should come from borrowing, how much from ‘pay as you go’ sources like higher taxes at the gas pump. In fact, determining exactly what share of the new funds should be generated from borrowing versus more readily available sources like taxes — what’s known as “pay-go” in public-finance circles — may well be the final sticking point.

“We have to start being mindful of that,” Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) said yesterday in an interview with NJ Spotlight. Prieto said he’s been advocating for a robust pay-go component in the next long-term transportation-spending plan to ease the heavy reliance on borrowing. (Credit AP).

“It’s got to be a good balance,” he said. “I think that’s the key.” (Credit AP).

But Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) maintains that not all borrowing is bad.

That’s especially true when the project being funded is going to last for several decades, like a new bridge, he explained to observers in Trenton on Monday .

The problem with prior state transportation-spending plans is not that they used borrowing, but abused best borrowing practices, Sweeney said. For example, rather than hike the gas tax, which hasn’t been increased in more than two decades, former Gov. Jon Corzine and others simply refinanced debt for longer terms, adding more costs in the long run.

“What got screwed up here is they kept refinancing the money,” he said. (Credit AP).

Sweeney also talked about striking “a balance” between borrowing and pay-go financing, saying once he and Prieto can reach an agreement on that issue, many others, including how much state gas taxes will need to be increased to fund the new plan, should be resolved.

The outcome of their deliberations will be important for New Jersey motorists who are concerned about a gas-tax increase since every dollar that isn’t raised for new transportation projects from borrowing will likely need to be generated at the pump. Likewise, for state taxpayers concerned about the bottom line, taking on too much new borrowing could threaten New Jersey’s already weakend bond rating, thus adding to the costs the state incurs whenever it needs to generate revenue from bond sales.

Finding the right balance between pay-go and borrowing, according to transportation experts, is also an important factor for the government officials who are tasked on a daily basis with managing the projects funded by the state.

Right now, the state is relying heavily on revenue generated by taxes levied on gasoline purchases and the gross receipts of refineries and distributors to pay for transportation projects and to generate federal matching funds. Together, those two taxes total 14.5 cents for every gallon purchased. Funds from state highway tolls and the Port Authority have also been used in recent years to subsidize the trust fund.

But thanks to the heavy amount of borrowing for transportation that’s occurred in past years, all of the revenue that’s being raised by the gas taxes will have to be used to pay down the trust fund’s significant debt as of July 1, leaving no cash for new projects unless there’s an increase.

Christie authored the state’s latest long-term transportation-spending scheme, a five-year plan that will expire this year at the end of June. And when Christie rolled out that initiative back in 2011, he said it would allow for nearly $2 billion of the overall $8 billion in spending over the five-year term to be financed with pay-go revenue out of the annual state budget.

Doing so would also mean other states would be “looking at New Jersey as the model for restoring a state to fiscal health,” he said at the time.

But Christie never funded the broader pay-go goals that were included in his original transportation-spending plan, except for an initial $76 million contribution in the first year. To make it through the final year of his plan this year, when pay-go financing would have totaled more than $600 million, Christie’s administration is instead relying on draining of $281 million in cash balances, the repayment of a $241.5 million loan to New Jersey Transit, and another $627 million in new borrowing.

With Governor Christie now focusing much of his time in recent months on his bid for the White House, this time the legislative leaders have taken it upon themselves to craft the next transportation-spending plan. Nevertheless, Sweeney and Prieto know that any agreement they reach can hardly be considered a done deal. The proposal will ultimately go to Gov. Chris Christie, who has final say. Both legislative leaders say they also have to keep in mind that Christie is not likely to look favorably upon a big tax-hike proposal in the middle of a GOP presidential primary.

A Rising Need

New Jersey needs to join the ranks of more than 30 other states with broad legislation permitting public-private partnerships (P3s) for transportation projects.

There are many models out there to choose from- including Virginia and Florida and Pennsylvania.

A Public and Private Partnerships for Transportation Act should minimally allow for the Department of Transportation DOT and other public transportation entities to partner with private companies to finance, deliver, operate and maintain transportation-related projects. P3s may receive all or a portion of the revenue generated (such as via tolls or user fees) in exchange for providing services or facilities. The law should apply to the construction of new transportation facilities and the improvement of existing facilities.

Under the law, the state would, for instance, retain ownership of a busy roadway while a private firm in a P3 would build new express lanes along that roadway. Following construction, the private firm would receive a return through tolling drivers who use the express lanes.

The law should create an independent Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board, to review and approve P3 projects. Private investors ought to be able to pitch their ideas to the board, in a manner prescribed in approved guidelines for considering both solicited and unsolicited proposals. If the board determines that a state operation would be administered more efficiently by a private company, the private company will be authorized to submit a proposal and enter into a contract to either completely or partially take over that operation for a defined period of time.

Proposals for P3s will be evaluated on the basis of pre-established criteria with assigned weights, including: cost; financial commitment; innovative financing; technical, scientific, or socioeconomic merit; public reputation, qualifications and financial capacity of the private entity; ability of the project to improve economic growth, improve public safety, reduce congestion, increase capacity or rehabilitate, reconstruct or expand an existing transportation facility; and other factors deemed appropriate by the public entity.

For unsolicited proposals, private entities are encouraged to request one-on-one meetings with DOT’s P3 office and/or a public transportation entity to discuss potential proposals before submission. As part of such one-on-one meetings, the P3 office and/or public entity may provide informal feedback. A formal review of an unsolicited proposal will only be undertaken once a private firm makes a formal submission.

An unsolicited proposal must contain information that is sufficient for the P3 office and/or public entity to evaluate the merits of the proposed project. Such information includes the capability of the private entity to deliver the project, the financial viability of the project and the benefits to the state of New Jersey and the public entity of a P3 delivery method over a conventional method. The board would need to promulgate an implementation manual identifying  any additional categories of information that all unsolicited proposals must contain.

It would seems prudent that the board and the P3 office established limited times- say, May and October as the only two months the state will receive unsolicited proposals.

In addition, New Jersey should seek sponsorship proposals for the state’s welcome centers and rest areas, environmental and engineering services, including project management services.

The law provides unique opportunities for private companies in various industries, including construction and communications. P3s should stimulate private investment in public highways, bridges and other facilities, where governments confront funding restraints.

Summary of Benefits and Limitations of Public-Private Partnerships

Potential Benefits

  • Transfer project risks to private partner.
  • Greater price and schedule certainty.
  • More innovative design and construction techniques.
  • “Free up” public funds for other purposes.
  • Quicker access to financing for projects.
  • Higher lever of maintenance.
  • Keep project debt off government’s books.

Potential Limitations

  • Increased financing costs.
  • Greater possibility for unforeseen challenges.
  • Limits government’s flexibility.
  • New risks from complex procurement process.
  • Fewer bidders.

Major Risks Transferred in Public-Private Partnership Agreements

Financing Risks

  • Changes in financing costs.
  • Estimated and actual inflation.

Design and Construction Risks

  • Interface between design and construction.
  • Discovery of endangered species.
  • Discovery of archeological, paleontological, or cultural resources.
  • Discovery of hazardous materials.
  • Unknown utility lines.
  • Delays in getting permits approved.

Operation and Maintenance Risks

  • Facility requires more maintenance than planned.
  • Facility is more costly to operate than planned.
  • Standards or requirements imposed in the future.

Revenue Risks

  • Usage of the facility is lower than predicted.
  • Public less willing to pay user fees than projected.

Tough times often lead to a new way of viewing common problems: how to create jobs, for example, and how to keep the economic machine moving. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is just one of several indicators suggesting that the U.S. government is seriously considering the need to look to novel programs to both update crumbling infrastructure and stimulate the economy. These alternatives may be all the more attractive when the public sector is faced with more and more debt and competing priorities for borrowing capacity.