Gas Tax Still Fueling Anger Among Candidates in NJ Primary Race

Gas Tax, Candidates, NJ Primary Race
New Jersey Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli speaks during a Republican gubernatorial primary debate against Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on Thursday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, Pool)

Lingering resentment over a 23-cents-per-gallon increase in New Jersey’s gas tax is playing a role in some of next month’s primary races, but it remains to be seen whether voter anger at the pump will fuel decisions at the polling place.

“Remember the Gas Tax” wails the official campaign slogan of William Hayden, a Republican in northwestern New Jersey running in a primary against state Sen. Steve Oroho, a co-sponsor of the plan facing a primary challenge for the first time in a decade.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, the front-runners in the Republican primary to replace Gov. Chris Christie, have also sparred over their positions on the gas tax.

Ciattarelli voted against raising the tax from 14.5 cents per gallon to 37.5 cents last October, but Guadagno has pointed to his support in 2012 for a smaller increase.

Ciattarelli, meanwhile, posted an online ad last month hitting Guadagno for not breaking with Christie earlier against the gas tax ahead of the October vote.

Guadagno later helped lead a campaign to try to derail a ballot question that voters approved last November to require that every penny of the gas tax be dedicated to transportation funding.

Oroho has drawn sharp criticism from some Republicans who feel the elimination of the estate tax and a small sales tax cut that was linked with the gas tax boost don’t do much for middle and lower-class residents. Among them is Hayden, a department of transportation staffer who has spoken out against the tax hike.

“I’m in a big commuter county up here. We know that for the money we’re giving in the gas tax…they’re not getting any return on their money,” Hayden said. “The taxpayers are fed up here.”

Oroho says the agreement was critical to fund the state’s Transportation Trust Fund because “a sound, well-maintained transportation infrastructure is key to our economic vitality.”

Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said the state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes remain the key issue, spurring an opposition to taxes in general. But she notes the gas tax has divided Republican candidates and many GOP primary voters.

She said that “given the current state of affairs with New Jersey Transit and other transit matters, commuters and others could feel that (the trust fund) needs a steady and predictable source of revenue, so there is some support for gas tax.”

While the gas tax hike continues to draw grumbles from many motorists, it’s not clear how many voters it will drive to the polls.

“I liked it better when gas was cheaper of course, but they had to do something because the roads and bridges are falling apart,” resident Sam Harrell said as his tank was filled at a gas station in Jackson. “Our leaders just kept punting the problem down the road all these years because no one had the guts to say ‘Hey, we need more tax money to repair the roads.'”

The lifelong Republican plans to vote the party ticket in November, whether the candidates supported the gas tax plan or not.

“I couldn’t tell you right now if they backed it, and, to be honest, I don’t care,” he said. “Something had to be done, and there was some relief for folks like me with the tax cuts.”

Another motorist, Sherman Wilfork, of New Brunswick, said he would consider the candidates’ stances on the gas tax when he decides who to support. But the self-described “political independent” said it won’t be an overriding factor in his final decision.

“On this and any other issue, I want to hear specific reasons on why they are for it or against it,” he said. “Don’t just scream ‘this is bad’ or ‘this is good.’ Give me a reason to support you.”

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