I have been told to pipe down before, by Jon Shure and others.

Perhaps Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, was right in a column this week about the proposed gas tax increase. If agreeing with the 70 percent of New Jersey residents who oppose raising the gas tax makes me a tax-cut nut, I\’m happy to oblige.

The organization that I lead, Americans for Tax Reform, opposes Gov. McGreevey\’s proposal to nearly double the gas tax on working families.

Last week, the state\’s blue-ribbon commission proposed a gas tax increase of at least 12.5 cents per gallon. "Blue ribbon" commissions are a familiar animal: Governors appoint them to take the political flak for proposing an unpopular tax increase. They serve two purposes: To reward campaign cronies with something to do, and to protect the governor from the predictable backlash.

McGreevey needs the commission to provide him with cover, because gas tax hikes are campaign killers. More than 8,000 people have signed a petition at www.nogastaxhike.com to oppose the increase. Nationwide, voters reject gas tax increases every chance they get; since 1996, just one of seven ballot questions in five states earned more than 40 percent of the vote.

Voters in New Jersey and elsewhere understand that transportation spending is a particularly tough nut to crack, and that tax increases do not provide the muscle that is needed.

If the legislature enacts a gas tax increase – against the wishes of voters, drivers, and taxpayers – drivers will pay more than $700 a year in gas taxes. If the state cannot fund a viable transportation system at present, the existing budget is not being used correctly.

The governor wants to increase taxes on working families before he cleans his own fiscal house. This gas tax increase would not build any new roads, fill potholes, prop up existing bridges, or pave the state. In fact, the Transportation Trust Fund is such a mess that any new gas tax revenue would only work to finance $6 billion in existing debt. For years, every cent that legislature has dedicated to the fund has gone to pay the interest on long-term borrowing even as existing gas tax revenues are diverted from transportation to the general fund.

The state continues to waste money with project labor agreements, which drive up the cost of construction. And the increased gas taxes would serve as a slush fund for the governor\’s campaign finance operation – to pay for state contracts whose beneficiaries donate to his reelection – rather than fix roads, absent the passage of pay-to-play reform.

Even more disturbing is the devious social agenda underlying this debate. Simply put, Shure wants to stop New Jersey families from driving their cars and force everyone into public transportation. Last year, Shure\’s organization issued a report calling for a 10-cent increase in the gas tax – not to fix the existing road system, but to subsidize mass transit. The report called for 80 percent of the gas tax increase to subsidize public transportation. Talk about trading potholes for peanuts.

Clearly, raising taxes on drivers and sending it to the bloated NJ Transit bureaucracy provides no benefit to drivers, but instead imposes a social agenda on every taxpayer. That\’s how the state got into its debt mess, and this is why voters in New Jersey vehemently oppose raising the gas tax.

McGreevey has already raised taxes in New Jersey by $5.5 billion and cut state aid, resulting in the largest property tax increases in a decade. Now his commission recommends increasing gas taxes so that McGreevey can dole out more patronage. Meanwhile, drivers will be forced out of their cars, and a variety of jobs dependent upon the commuter industry will decline.

The proposed gas tax increase, gubernatorial side-stepping, and a mixed can of nuts in the legislature begging for more of the same will not provide jobs and growth or help rebound New Jersey\’s economy. That requires fiscal discipline in Trenton, not a tax-and-spend attitude that perpetuates debt and patronage.

Most of all, New Jersey needs an answer to this question from the governor and legislature: Are you a tax-cut nut, or not?
Grover Norquist is president of the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform.

Posted on Fri, Dec. 05, 2003 by The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/opinion/local1/7418928.htm