TRENTON - Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said Thursday that he doesn't think Republicans have the "political will" to raise taxes to replenish New Jersey's near-depleted fund for transportation projects.
For months, Prieto (D., Hudson) and the rest of the Legislature's Democratic leadership have been pushing for a plan to raise revenue for the Transportation Trust Fund, which they had warned would run out of money July 1.
"It looks like [Republicans] are heading in a different direction, again kicking the can down the road," Prieto told reporters Thursday.
All 80 seats in the Assembly are up for election in November, and raising taxes is hardly a popular move.
Democrats control the chamber, 48-32.
"The speaker could post his bill and pass it without one Republican vote," said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union). "So why not pass a bill and send it to the governor's desk?"
He added, "If you're going to raise taxes, then show the public you also have the intestinal fortitude to lower other taxes," such as the inheritance tax.
Gov. Christie, a Republican considering running for president in 2016, last fall declared everything was on the table to find a solution, and he tapped a veteran Democratic operative as his new transportation commissioner to get the job done.
Even as the commissioner, Jamie Fox, has traveled the state pressing for new revenue, Christie hasn't committed to a new funding source, such as increasing the gas tax.
However, Fox on Wednesday conceded that lawmakers were unlikely to strike an accord this year. "It's election time, which makes it a much more difficult thing to do," he said, according to the Bergen Record.
Two-thirds of New Jersey's major roads and bridges are of poor or mediocre quality, and more than a third of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, the American Society of Civil Engineers says.
In February, the governor said on his radio program that the transportation funding situation wasn't a "crisis."
Prieto said negotiations with Christie's office "have cooled down a bit."
"I don't want to say they've died," Prieto told reporters Thursday.
All of the revenue from the state's 14.5-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline goes toward more than $1 billion in annual debt service, so the state has been financing transportation projects mostly through bonding.
Christie says he will spend $1.6 billion on transportation funding in fiscal year 2016. There is no plan on how to replenish the fund beyond next year.
Treasury Department spokesman Christopher Santarelli said the money for fiscal year 2016 would come from about $620 million in new bonds, $240 million from NJ Transit's repayment of a cash advance, interest on other bonds, and some funding from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, among other sources.
Democrats and public-interest groups have been calling for a more comprehensive long-term plan to maintain and build new roads, bridges, and rail projects.
"We need a multiyear plan that would have a decent pay-go component," Prieto said, referring to spending cash on projects, rather than borrowing money to fund them.