New Jersey Democrats have missed another opportunity to lead with vision. Instead, it appears they have knuckled under to the Governor yet again. In fact, their current proposals to fund the Transportation Trust Fund with an accompanying phase out the estate tax does absolutely nothing to inspire confidence that our Democrats are ready to lead this state in 2018.
Here is what we are faced with this week: Democratic leaders have been outplayed by the Governor yet again or they actually believe tax fairness is achieved by raising the gas tax while cutting the estate tax. Either way we are in deep trouble if this is the best our leaders have to offer. But it is possible that both are true – which an even darker cloud over our party’s elected officials.
We have known about the TTF funding crisis for well over a year. In fact, last year when then Commissioner Fox testified in Legislative budget hearings, he sounded the alarm. Democrats failed to put forth a proposal last year, kicking the can down the road, scared of tackling a tax increase close to their election.
Clearly the ball was in the Democrat’s court to define the agenda and initiate the proposals. This was a chance to lead – to set the agenda and define the narrative.
So last week, Democrats act. They put forth not one, but two proposals to fund the TTF. Both proposals phase out of the estate tax giving the Governor the tax fairness he demanded. By refusing to come to consensus before releasing competing proposals, and doing so weeks before the budget is due, Senate and Assembly Democratic fueled the Governor’s narrative that they are more the problem than the solution. Hardly a show of strength.
They have played right into Christie’s hands. And even with the delay, the Democrats have not done the work to build support for an admittedly hard sell of a gas tax. Within hours of these dueling proposals, NJ Citizen Action and NJ Working Families started mounting campaigns against both proposals.
Strategically it is hard to see how this was well played by the Democrats.
But it gets worse because Democrats are now named sponsors on legislation to phase out the estate tax during another budget cycle when we are shortchanging education funding, property tax rebates, scrambling to fund pensions, and so much more.
The estate tax unquestionably applies to the most privileged of New Jersey residents. New Jersey Policy Perspective estimates 4% of New Jersey households are candidates for the estate tax. It is another give away to New Jersey’s wealthiest residents and not even remotely anything that could be considered tax fairness.
The Democrats have capitulated or concurred with the Governor on this warped version of tax fairness. Either way, we should not be cornered into accepting this as the best we can do in the little time we have left to fund the almost broke TTF. The public did not wait until the last minute, kowtow to the Governor and propose two versions of a solution. Now we should not be forced to pay the bill for the abdication of good leadership.
If we acquiesce, we are giving a free pass to elected Democrats on these critical issues. We cannot allow them conflate tax breaks for the rich with tax fairness and we cannot, after 6 years of demonstrated failures, allow them to negotiate with a Governor who does not keep his word.
It is way past time that the Democrats put forth an intelligent proposal to increase the gas tax, with tax credits for those who rely on driving for work and an increase of the EITC, in order to minimize the regressive impact of the tax. Force the Governor to defend the onerous position of cutting the estate tax as a form of tax fairness.
But we have to demand that our Democratic leaders do the right thing now because apparently they are not naturally inclined to do it on their own.