South Jersey gets shortchanged when it comes to state aid.
It’s not another complaint by a disgruntled business owner or a passenger waiting for the NJ Transit train to arrive in Atlantic City. It’s in the numbers.
A recent report released by Rutgers University looking at whether South Jersey gets its “fair share” of public goods concluded the area is far less likely to receive funding from the state than North and Central Jersey.
The report’s findings came as no surprise to officials in South Jersey.
“This is an argument we’ve had forever,” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said. “It’s because they have the votes. There’s less votes here, so we have less representation. We’ve always been shortchanged.”
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The report defined public goods as state aid, state assumption of project costs or general public benefits such as transportation infrastructure, education and good public health. After taking into account what the southern part of the state received in relationship to its population, tax base and voter turnout, the report’s authors searched for trends.
Its conclusion: The state’s southern region does get less funding even taking into account its smaller scale. This was true even in cities such as Atlantic City, which is closer in size to cities in northern parts of the state.
But the report could not pinpoint a reason why.
“The lower level of public funding ... is not a factor of population size, taxable property value or voter turnout,” the report states.
The difference is compounded by the fact that counties in South Jersey are in worse shape than the rest of the state.
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South Jersey residents make lower incomes, are less healthy, older and have fewer college degrees.
“We might think that because counties in South Jersey are on average poorer… then the state would need to give more to those less well-off southern counties,” the report states. “But instead we see the opposite.”
This isn’t a new argument for South Jersey residents. In 1980, Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties voted in a nonbinding referendum to secede from New Jersey and create the nation’s 51st state.
Secession was never going to happen for political reasons, but the point was to raise awareness of South Jersey’s concerns that the funding was skewed toward the counties up north, Levinson said.
Those concerns continue today.
About 56 percent of South Jersey residents feel North Jersey gets more from the state, according to a poll conducted by Monmouth University. About 20 percent of residents say all regions get a fair share, while an additional 20 percent said they were unsure.
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The issue of unfair distribution was compounded in November when the Assembly voted to raise the gas tax 23 cents to help replenish the transportation trust fund. The money is meant to go to unfinished road projects in the state.
But the majority of those projects are in Central and North Jersey, even though those regions have more access to bus stops and rail lines.
Legislators who voted against the bill, including state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, said at the time this would disproportionately affect South Jersey.
Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, also said the tax would hurt the large farming industry in South Jersey because of the machinery the farmers use every day.
“I’ve always made a point with public transportation,” Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerry Thornton said. “NJ Transit is basically nonexistent. We pay a lot of taxes to the state. We are entitled to it.”
Officials also point to the recent failed referendum on North Jersey gaming as a sign that Trenton favors the upper part of the state.
“Does anyone really think that if those same casinos were in North Jersey that there would be a referendum to get casinos in Atlantic City?” Thornton said. “I wish I could give you an answer. ... We’ve challenged this so many times.”