Christie shutting down road projects after deal collapses

Michael Catalini, Associated Press

Gov. Chris Christie raised the stakes in a debate over hiking the state's gas tax by ordering the shutdown of transportation trust fund projects in a late-night executive order on Thursday.

A large group of mostly construction workers hold signs and shout as they gather in front of the New Jersey Statehouse where legislators are in session Thursday, June 30, 2016, in Trenton, N.J. Republican Gov. Chris Christie has proposed raising the gas tax by 23 cents to 37.5 cents a gallon to fund road projects through New Jersey's Transportation Trust Fund. The sales tax would gradually be reduced to 6 percent and there would be a cut in retirement income taxes. The Democrat-led Assembly approved the measure on Tuesday. However, Senate President Steve Sweeney had favored his own proposal that raised the gas tax by the same amount but included other tax cuts. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie raised the stakes in a debate over hiking the state's gas tax by ordering the shutdown of transportation trust fund projects in a late-night executive order on Thursday.

The deadline to replenish New Jersey's fund for road, bridge and transit work came and went with no deal reached by the Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers, so Christie issued an executive order calling for state transportation officials to develop a plan to shut down projects by 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

It is unclear how many projects will be affected, but Christie said that TTF money shouldn't be spent on any projects that aren't "absolutely essential."

The current five-year, $1.6 billion transportation trust fund ran out of authority for new borrowing on Friday. A proposal to hike the gas tax by 23 cents and cut the sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent, which passed the Assembly and is backed by Christie, remains stalled in the Senate.

"In order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this State, it is necessary that the remaining amounts held by the TTF not be spent on any transportation project that is not absolutely essential," Christie said.

Senate President Steve Sweeney nixed any vote on either Christie's plan or a second bipartisan plan that also hiked the gas tax but instead included different tax cuts. Sweeney said there's no support in the Senate for the Christie-Assembly plan.

The fund would have been able to pay for projects already underway until sometime in August, the Christie administration said. But because of a nearly $16 billion debt, there won't be cash for new projects.

The path forward is unclear.

At issue is the cost of the Christie-Assembly plan, which could leave a more than $1 billion hole in the budget because of the sales tax cut. Christie said the deal represents tax fairness because it cuts taxes by roughly the same amount as it raises them. Legislative estimates, however, suggest the state could lose up to nearly $2 billion a year.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said there are not enough votes to override Christie on the original Senate bill, which the governor said he would not sign. He said in a statement Friday that the Assembly is willing to compromise if the Senate approves a bill the governor will sign.

"We all know we need a transportation funding plan the governor will sign and we need it as soon as possible. This is too important for jobs — especially in our construction industry — and our economy to allow this to continue," Prieto said.

The Senate's stall comes after Sweeney advocated for more than a year for the transportation trust fund to be replenished, only to see his plan put on the back burner and for him to argue that Friday's deadline isn't so dire after all.

Sweeney said he plans to negotiate behind the scenes with the Assembly, but he did not say when exactly a vote would come or how the legislation might change.

"We have to go to the Assembly with what we feel is a bill that can pass. So it's a negotiation," he said on Thursday.

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