If not for the scandals dominating the political and government environment, the recent announcement by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto that he's open to three ideas to raise taxes would have drawn an immediate response from the Christie administration, with sharply conflicting ideas for the executive-legislative budget negotiations.
With Gov. Chris Christie scheduled to submit his fiscal 2015 budget to the Legislature on Feb. 25, Prieto said he'd welcome consideration of the following:
• An increase in the state's 14.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund.
• A tax on water consumption to finance acquisition and preservation of open space.
• A reinstatement of the surtax on incomes of wealthy New Jerseyans, a perennial favorite of Democrats ever since the tax expired at the close of the Corzine administration in 2009.
Prieto offered no details, other than to suggest that with revenues falling short of administration estimates and an agonizingly slow economic recovery, he anticipates the budget will pinch pennies and fail to adequately address the state's needs and priorities.
By raising the prospect of increasing taxes, Prieto signaled that there is a sense among Democrats that Christie has been forced to take his hands off the wheel to deal with the investigations of his administration and his re-election campaign.
They've concluded that a distracted governor is a weakened governor, besieged on all sides by questions about his staff's involvement in closing access lanes at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee and by allegations of improper distribution of Hurricane Sandy relief funds.
Prieto tempered his tax increase comments with a promise to seek cost savings, including workforce reductions, but it's unlikely that sufficient spending cuts can be found to cover the revenue shortfall and fund administration and legislative priorities.
Don't look for any of the speaker's suggestions to make it into the governor's budget, though. In fact, there has been renewed speculation that Christie will propose a tax cut despite serious reservations about whether the state can afford to absorb the revenue loss that would mean.
He's vetoed the surtax on the wealthy more than once and has been adamant in opposing a gas tax increase. There's no reason to believe he's undergone a change of heart, and his unshakable anti-tax posture would, in all likelihood, extend to a water-consumption levy as well.
Prieto stopped short of promising action on any tax proposal and left open the question of how aggressively he would pursue such legislation.
Shoring up the Transportation Trust Fund - currently funded by bonded debt, toll road revenue and diversions from other budget items - has broader appeal than the other ideas he mentioned.
Marshaling support to rehabilitate crumbling highways and bridges has never been difficult. Moreover, a strong and long-term capital construction program with its significant job-creating potential has long been a cornerstone of organized labor.
The current tax on gasoline produces $540 million per year, roughly $37 million per penny. A ten cent increase would generate nearly another $400 million, while the additional cost to the average motorist who drives, say, 1,000 miles per month in a car with a 20-miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency rating would amount to five dollars.
Prieto and those who favor an increase in the gasoline tax should abandon the argument that an increase is necessary because New Jersey has the third-lowest levy in the nation. Merely because most of the rest of the nation imposes a higher rate is no reason for New Jersey to match them.
Supporters would be better served and could present far more compelling arguments for their position by concentrating on the urgency of addressing the dangers posed by functionally obsolete highways, bridges and overpasses. Or by offering evidence of lost work productivity and wasted energy caused by traffic congestion and delays.
Prieto has laid down his marker for the administration to notice. It's not a line in the sand, nor is it a challenge to the governor. Rather, it served notice in a nonconfrontational way that the Legislature intends to reassert itself as a tougher negotiator than it has been in the past.
Two months ago, the consensus was that budget deliberations would focus on which tax to cut and by how much. Today, the debate has shifted to which tax to increase and by how much.
What a difference a scandal makes.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.