By Wm. Winkler
From all quarters, this is the season of madness. We have the "Trump Derangement Syndrome" of the Left and in New Jersey, we have the irrationality of those who believe that you can go on forever without paying the cost of basic infrastructure. And the madness is growing in its intensity and violence. Recently a GOP county committeeman showed up at a meeting looking for me, walking up and down the rows of folded chairs, brandishing a firearm -- and all because I had disagreed with him on the gas tax.
The police have had to investigate this and other incidents because certain demagogues have painted as monsters those who said it was time to face up to a debt crisis. What should have been a rational, civil debate over tax policy has produced such violent emotion that there are now a number of people who wouldn't mind relieving themselves on our graves -- and the sooner the better, they say. Hence a political environment where a gunman comes calling.
Is this America -- or Weimar?
Two recent direct mail pieces by Republicans illustrate the irrationality that has poisoned the debate. One mailer, by Assembly candidate John Cesaro, attacks an opponent for voting to increase the tax on gasoline that funds the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). Mr. Cesaro, an incumbent Morris County Freeholder, makes his attack apparently oblivious to the fact that the county he runs and the half-dozen municipalities he works for have applied for and received millions in TTF funding for road and bridge repair and maintenance, as well as for other construction projects. Without the money from the TTF, those repairs and maintenance would have to be paid for by increases in local property taxes.
Another mailer, this one from the gubernatorial campaign of Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, goes into histrionics over the "outrageous 23 cents gas tax hike" that she was directly responsible for. Even before taking power, her transition team endorsed $1.2 billion in new borrowing for the TTF. They kicked the need for a gas tax increase down the road by relying on massive borrowing -- the very thing that they had criticized Governor Jon Corzine for and claimed that they would not do.
There was another enormous influx of borrowing in 2012, with the Transportation Trust Fund Renewal (V) that authorized $1.6 billion in spending each year until 2016. More spending was authorized despite the fact that the last time the gas tax produced enough revenue to pay for transportation infrastructure needs in New Jersey was in 1990.
The gas tax remained at 14 1/2 cents since 1988. While every other state in America raised its gas tax to keep up with inflation, while President Ronald Reagan doubled the federal gas tax to keep up with inflation, New Jersey's political establishment did the dishonest but popular thing of not raising the gas tax and instead borrowed more and more -- and New Jersey fell deeper and deeper into debt.
While everything else was adjusted for inflation again and again, the gas tax was not. Why? Because politicians could point to low gas prices whenever a property taxpayer complained about having the highest in the nation property taxes. As property taxes doubled and then doubled again -- costing taxpayers thousands upon thousands each year -- politicians would point to the gas tax and tell them they'd saved a couple hundred.
But they hadn't saved anything. They just passed the costs on to their children and grandchildren.
It was all an illusion, a dishonesty willingly believed by a public who on some level must have known that it was all bunk. After all, the average new car cost $10,400 in 1988. Today it is $33,560. It went against every knowledgeable fiber in their bodies to believe the nonsense that the cost to maintain the roads and bridges they drove those cars on would remain the same for 28 years.
The average citizen understands "adjustments for inflation" because they depend on them. Retirees and others on social security receive yearly cost-of-living increases based on such inflation adjustments. Here are the adjustments for inflation that should have triggered increases in the gasoline tax, year-by-year, since 1988: 4.0% in 1988, 4.7% in 1989, 5.4% in 1990, 3.7% in 1991, 3% in 1992, 2.6% in 1993, 2.8% in 1994, 2.6% in 1995, 2.9% in 1996, 2.1% in 1997, 1.3% in 1998, 2.5% in 1999, 3.5% in 2000, 2.6% in 2001, 1.4% in 2002, 2.1% in 2003, 2.7% in 2004, 4.1% in 2005, 3.3% in 2006, 2.3% in 2007, 5.8% in 2008, zero in 2009, zero in 2010, 3.6% in 2011, 1.7% in 2012, 1.5% in 2013, 1.7% in 2014, zero in 2015, and .3% in 2016. But instead, New Jersey's gas tax remained at 14 1/2 cents since 1988.
They ignored the fact that the principal revenue source funding transportation in New Jersey hadn't been adjusted for inflation since 1988 and hadn't produced enough revenue to pay for New Jersey's transportation needs since 1990. Because of the debt that was allowed to accumulate, by 2015 the annual cost of that debt to taxpayers was $1.1 billion -- outstripping the $750 million in revenue from the gas tax.
Last year, we were treated to cries about how much it cost to build a road in New Jersey. The source was a report from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. One was led to believe that the report was a singular event. In fact, these problems were first identified in October 2008 and then annually after that. Why were they not addressed? Why was there no outcry over "road costs" from the politicians, the press, and the public when more billions were borrowed in 2009 and again in 2012? Why was no one concerned about "road costs" so long as the state was borrowing more and kicking the costs down the road? Why did it only become a problem when some people suggested that, after 28 years, it was time to face up to reality?
In public the politicians fretted about the size of the gas tax increase, but all the while they knew exactly why. If members of New Jersey's political establishment wanted to know why it was necessary to raise the gas tax by 23 cents, all they had to do was look into a mirror. 23 cents a gallon, all in one hit, is what you get when politicians suspend the iron rules of economics and tell people that they can have something for nothing. This is what happens when you don't adjust the cost of something for inflation. A business would have gone bankrupt, but politicians know they can be heroes today and get re-elected, by passing the bill to a future generation. It will be some else's problem.
Freeholder Cesaro and Lt. Governor Guadagno are not bad people. In their records of public service, there is much to commend them for. They are both good Republicans who have had positive effects on the growth of our party and on the well being of their communities. As a stand-alone position, their opposition to a tax increase on gasoline is perfectly defensible and could well be described as "conservative." But it is not defensible in the context of the immoral dereliction, nonfeasance, and dishonesty by the political establishment in New Jersey, who wantonly ignored the fact that for decades the gas tax had not produced sufficient revenue for the state's transportation infrastructure needs as defined by the Legislature and the Executive.
And the violence of the emotions, deliberately stirred-up, hasn't illuminated the discussion any.