TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Don’t trust Trenton.
That’s the message behind a new ad campaign that asks voters to approve a constitutional amendment mandating that every cent of a gas tax hike be used only for transportation projects.
If the message sounds familiar, it’s because the group behind it took a cue from an unrelated campaign that wants to torpedo efforts to expand casinos in northern New Jersey.
The Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative is behind the ad campaign asking voters to approve the ballot question about the gas tax money. The tax will rise from 14.5 cents a gallon to 37.5 cents on Nov. 1.
The ad campaign comes after Trenton’s Bad Bet raised about $11 million in its bid to defeat casino expansion in New Jersey. They have used television ads that called into question the trustworthiness of state lawmakers. The group was backed by New York-based casino interests and seized on the failure of lawmakers to specify what tax rates would be for the new casinos and how much of the money would go to help Atlantic City.
A counter-effort by the backers of potential new casinos recently ended a $8.5 million ad effort after internal polling showed the casino question failing.
The anti-casino expansion campaign was an advertising success that could potentially help supporters of the gas tax question, known as Question 2, according to Greg Lalevee, chairman of the cooperative.
“I think it was pretty obvious they hit a certain theme and that theme easily applies to Question 2,” he said. “It certainly appeared as if that was an effective message.”
New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature has gotten low approval ratings in polls. A June 2015 Fairleigh Dickinson survey, the latest available, showed lawmakers had just a 24 percent approval rating. That poll surveyed 792 registered voters and had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points. Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s approval rating also is at record lows in multiple state polls.
A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Monday found 46 percent in favor of the amendment compared with 39 percent opposed. The phone survey of 848 registered voters has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
About $1.2 billion in revenues is expected per year under the new gas tax legislation. Most of that revenue is already authorized only for transportation use, but two portions of the tax are not constitutionally dedicated.
If the ballot question is approved, about 3 cents of the tax on diesel as well as a 4-cent portion of a wholesale tax on petroleum products would be put into a kind of lockbox.
The referendum is separate from the legislation raising the gas tax, but some voters seem to have linked them, judging from the comments on the cooperative’s Facebook page urging support, according to Lalevee.
The decision to raise the gas tax came after the transportation trust fund’s authority expired June 30 without a deal in place to secure capital projects. Christie and lawmakers finally agreed on the 23-cent-per-gallon hike along with sales and estate tax cuts. The deal passed with bipartisan support but faced strong opposition from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as from talk radio in the New Jersey.
The engineers’ cooperative isn’t the only group running ads in support of the question: AAA is also asking for voters to say yes to the dedication, though they’re not taking aim at lawmakers. Other groups — including Forward NJ, a business-labor coalition, and the conservative group American for Prosperity — also support the dedication, though they haven’t run an ad campaign.
“Voters have the power to ensure that their tax dollars are spent on improving the transportation infrastructure of New Jersey, and not for any other purpose,” said Chris Donnelly, a spokesman for the Forward NJ coalition.
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