New Jersey lawmakers are heading toward 2015 facing an impending disagreement over public pensions, Atlantic City’s struggling economy and what they have called a transportation funding crisis.
Consensus on the issues has proved elusive and could be even more so as Republican Gov. Chris Christie weighs a run for president. If he runs Christie is all but certain to face serious primary competition from the GOP field, meaning he will want to burnish his conservative accomplishments while limiting political liabilities.
The challenges for lawmakers come as the field of gubernatorial candidates for 2017 continues to gel.
Lawmakers agree they need to shore up the state’s transportation trust fund, which is slated to run out of money for new infrastructure projects by July because of growing debt. So far there is no consensus on how to raise the money.
The fund is paid for in part through gas taxes. Some lawmakers have introduced proposals that call for tax increases, including a measure to raise rates on petroleum wholesalers. Republicans have been reticent.
The public pension system continues to be a point of contention between the Democrat-controlled statehouse and the GOP governor. Senate President Steve Sweeney is criticizing Christie over the system, payments to which Christie slashed because of a revenue shortfall.
Last year, public sector unions sued over the cut, but a judge ruled that although the state has an obligation to make the payments, the government’s financial predicament was a valid reason not to do so.
Lawmakers are awaiting recommendations from a commission convened by Christie studying possible paths to help revive Atlantic City’s ailing economy. Already four of the city’s 12 casinos have closed. The panel, which is meeting mostly behind closed doors, is slated to meet again this week. A path forward, though, is murky. Atlantic City’s trouble parallels a move by some lawmakers to expand gambling elsewhere in the state and to raise the state’s comparatively low 9 percent gambling tax.
Legislators also remember last year’s budget battle, which nearly forced a government shutdown. Christie ultimately signed the $32.5 billion measure but not before slashing tax hikes and cutting other allocations legislators sought. The budget deadline is June 30. Lawmakers also are expected to consider bills aimed at improving the state’s higher education system, changing the tax code and enacting earned sick leave.