Is Sen. Beck the new Christie Whitman?

Senator Jennifer Beck is a strident social liberal, out of step with the Republican Party platform, but very much in-step with the views expressed by former Governor Christine Todd Whitman.  Whitman, the author of It's My Party Too! (a liberal tract that urges the Republican Party to become more like the Democrats), "presented" her policies as fiscally conservative and "anti-tax".  Off course, those of us who were there remember just how unsound and un-conservative her policies turned out to be -- and how they caused a property tax explosion. 

 

These days, Senator Beck appears to be following the Whitman playbook on more than just the social issues.  Like Whitman before her, Beck is presenting a campaign talking point as a policy prescription.  The term "anti-tax" is a useful blurb during a political campaign, but how anti-tax is the slogan "anti-tax" if it prevents cuts in the tax on retirement income and the phase out of the estate tax?  How anti-tax is the claim "anti-tax" if it causes property taxes to rise?

 

The controversy revolves around how to fund the bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund (TTF).  Without money from the fund, the repair and maintenance of the state's roads and bridges will grind to a halt.  On this, Senator Beck is in danger of becoming a casualty of the "inside-the-box" thinking of her leadership.  It was they who presented the option of a user tax on gasoline without context.  This is like asking voters if they "support or oppose war" and then using the result to make "war" some political "third rail."  Of course voters will always claim to "oppose war" -- until it is placed in the context of a December 7th or September 11th.  Then those numbers change in a hurry.

 

This is illustrated by the data from a poll conducted last week in Monmouth County by a highly respected, national survey research firm.  Look at what happens when an increase in the user tax on gasoline is placed in context with a tax cut on retirement income:

 

T15. A proposed increase in the state gas tax would cost the average driver an extra 200 dollars each year. Eliminating the state tax on retirement income would save the average retiree more than twelve hundred dollars each year. Knowing this information, would you support or oppose a proposal that would increase the state gas tax and eliminate the state tax on retirement income at the same time?

 

Total Support .......................................................... 74%

Total Oppose .......................................................... 14%

Strongly Support ...................................................... 58%

Somewhat Support .................................................. 16%

Strongly Oppose ..................................................... 12%

Somewhat Oppose .................................................... 2%

Unsure, No Opinion ............................................... 12%

 

The Tax Foundation -- the granddaddy of conservative think tanks (founded in 1937) -- is a proponent of user fees/taxes simply because it is the fairest way to impose a tax.   Americans innately understand the fairness of paying your own way and that there is no free ride.  But that's the biggest problem we have with Senator Beck's plan to fund the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) -- it makes New Jersey residents subsidize out-of-state drivers for the use of our roads and bridges.  And we're talking billions here -- billions of dollars in taxes that we could be collecting from out-of-state drivers to maintain and repair our roads and bridges but that instead we will make New Jersey residents pay. 

 

See, here's the FACT that you just can't get around:  The ONLY way to make out-of-state drivers pay their fair share is through a user tax on gasoline.  That's it.

 

And the voters who live in Senator Beck's Monmouth County agree.  Here's what they told that polling company last week:

 

T12. Approximately one third of gas tax revenues in New Jersey is paid by out-of-state travelers, while 100% of property taxes are paid by New Jersey residents. Knowing this information, which of the following do you think is the best option to pay for improvements to roads and bridges, an increase in the state gas tax or an increase in property taxes?

 

Gas tax .................................................................... 81%

Property tax ............................................................... 3%

Unsure or No Opinion ............................................ 16%

 

That is a pretty darn unambiguous finding.

 

We've been looking at the whole of Senator Beck's plan to address the TTF and how to fund road and bridge maintenance and repair.  There are lots of very optimistic assumptions and unanswered questions.  Here are just a few of the things Senator Beck could maybe help us understand better:

 

(1) New Jersey is a chronically low-growth state and its current tax structure makes it just about the worst place in America to start a business.  Senator Beck's plan does nothing to address the current tax structure, the damage done by the tax on retirement income and the estate tax.  There are no tax cuts in her plan, no attempt is made to address the out-migration of income and capital.

 

(2) And yet the Senator's plan is entirely reliant on economic growth and it will fail if there is an economic downturn.  Her estimate of 3.15 percent growth is more than double the current year revenue growth of 1.5 percent.

 

(3) Senator Beck's plan relies on timely savings from the mergers of departments and agencies (remember that the TTF is broke NOW) but fails to mention possible contractual hurdles and bond covenant issues.

 

(4) Her plan assumes $1.4 billion in health plan savings that have been recommended but not acted upon by the Legislature.

 

(5) And then there are the freezes:  K to 12 school aid is frozen, municipal aid is frozen, property tax relief is frozen, tuition aid grants are frozen, NJ Stars is frozen, student financial assistance is frozen, higher education funding is frozen, hospital funding is frozen, the State Police is frozen, and the Clean Energy Fund is raided.

 

Does anyone believe that this is the basis for a bi-partisan plan?  And it will have to be bi-partisan in order to get through the Democrat-controlled Legislature.  So what that leaves is politics and pre-campaign posturing.  That has merit for its own sake. . . but it won't maintain any roads or repair any bridges.