Did Andover Township violate ethics rules?
Today's New Jersey Herald carries a story that raises some legal and ethical questions surrounding the governing body of Andover Township. In today's story, those members of the Andover Township Committee do a good job persuading the Herald that the resolution they passed at their June 27th meeting was aimed at a proposal by Senator Steve Oroho called S-2411.
Senator Oroho's S-2411 phased out the Estate Tax, eliminated the tax on retirement income for over 90 percent of retirees, provided an earned income tax credit for the working poor, and provided for a charitable deduction on the state income tax. It also raised the tax on gasoline by 23 cents -- bringing it close (37.5 cents) to its inflation adjusted level of 39 cents a gallon.
A brief explanation: Since 1988, New Jersey has charged drivers just 14 1/2 cents a gallon of gasoline to maintain and improve its roads and bridges. States like Pennsylvania need to charge drivers over 50 cents a gallon to maintain their roads and bridges. Instead of adjusting its gas tax for inflation, New Jersey borrowed to repair its roads and bridges. Because of this borrowing, the first 10 cents of any gas tax increase will be needed just to pay interest on that debt.
In today's story, members of Andover Township's governing committee try to convince the Herald that their resolution was directed at S-2411. Explicit mention is made of Senator Oroho in the newspaper article.
In fact, S-2411 never made it to the floor for a vote. Instead, around the time the Andover Committee convened on Monday evening, June 27th, Governor Chris Christie was meeting with Speaker Vincent Prieto to discuss the specifics of a new proposal. According to newspaper reports and wire services, "just before midnight" the two emerged from the Governor's office with a new piece of legislation called A-12.
Governor Christie's A-12 still raised the gas tax by 23 cents a gallon. The Republican Governor said there was no way around it if we wanted to keep roads and bridges safe and maintained. The Estate Tax phase out was gone, as were the other tax cuts negotiated by Senator Oroho -- with the exception of the elimination of the tax on retirement income. Oroho had negotiated an elimination of the tax for over 90 percent of New Jersey retirees. The Governor's plan lowered that to 80 percent. The big change was the cut in the state sales tax to 6 percent. A half-cent in January and another half-cent by the end of 2017. The Governor's numbers show that whereas the gas tax increase will cost the average household $200 a year, the sales tax cut will save that household $400 a year.
A-12 wasn't introduced until after midnight on Tuesday, June 28th, when it was voted on and passed by a bi-partisan majority. And that's the curious thing about the Andover Township resolution, it addresses something that hadn't happened yet.
The resolution doesn't appear on the agenda of the Township Committee meeting for Monday, June 27th, and yet the people we spoke to claim that it was prepared by the Township Attorney. The resolution makes explicit reference to the "Governor's proposal to increase the gas tax by $0.23 per gallon." But the Governor didn't have a "proposal to increase the gas tax by $0.23 per gallon" until shortly before midnight on June 27th -- well after the Andover Township Committee had adjourned and gone home.
So how did the governing committee of Andover Township pass a resolution to oppose something that had not yet happened?
The resolution that passed the Andover Township Committee is signed but undated. That is what they sent out to the legislators and the governing bodies of the other Sussex County municipalities. Why isn't the resolution dated?
Is it possible that the resolution was discussed at the township meeting, but prepared and passed after the meeting? The resolution certainly reads like something someone would have written on Tuesday, June 28th, or after.
Of course, holding a backroom meeting, without notice to the public, could be viewed as a violation of the state's Open Public Meetings Act -- also known as the Sunshine Law. Look, it is bad enough that they didn't give the public notice that they were going to discuss such a resolution, but to actually pass it outside a public meeting would be much worse.
If this is the case, it is no wonder they were at pains to make the Herald story about Senator Steve Oroho, despite the fact that the resolution doesn't mention his name or his legislation. That would be an effective ruse to cover up the fact that the resolution is about Governor Christie and his proposal, A-12, which the Township Committee couldn't have known about because it hadn't happened yet.