TRENTON, NJ - The drive to enact a higher gasoline tax in New Jersey has stalled.

The state Assembly and state Senate were expected to vote on the proposal Wednesday, but disagreements in the Senate over the plan, a handful of defections and several last-minute amendments forced Senate President Steve Sweeney to postpone any action on the deal until Friday.

Further debate is also expected, which may delay any action until next week.

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Last Friday, Gov. Chris Christie, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker  Vincent Prieto (D-Bergen/Hudson) held a joint press conference to announce the deal, which would have increased the state gasoline tax 23 cents per gallon and raise $16 billion over the next eight years to finance the state’s beleaguered Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for bridge, tunnel and road repairs.

The last time New Jersey motorists experienced a hike in gas taxes was 1988.

Christie shut down all repair work and pending projects in June as the fund was about to run out of money.

To win Christie’s support for the gas tax increase, Sweeney and Prieto agreed to an elimination of the state’s estate tax over the next 15 months, and a slight reduction in the state’s sales tax over the next two years to 6.625 percent from 7 percent.  The Democratic leadership was confident they could deliver enough votes to pass the measure, but mounting opposition may not make that possible.

Central New Jersey lawmakers continue their opposition to the plan.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for a 23-cent per gallon gas tax increase,” said state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, (R-16th). “I’ve heard from too many of my constituents that this would be unaffordable. We all want safe roads and bridges, but the cost has to be reasonable, which this proposal is not.”

“We need tax reform in the worst way in New Jersey; this deal, however is not the way to do it,” said Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Mercer). “It is unfair to increase the gas tax 23 cents overnight; the deal is fiscally irresponsible in terms of balancing the ledger.

Ciattarelli launched his GOP Primary campaign for Governor Tuesday. 

“For sure, we need to abolish the estate tax and the transfer inheritance tax and increase retirement income exclusions, but that should be part of a larger tax reform package that is fiscally responsible,” Ciattarelli added.

The state’s gas tax would increase to 37.5 cents per gallon if the proposal musters enough votes in the Assembly and Senate.

“Our state’s low gas tax is perhaps the only tax where New Jerseyans get a break,” said Bateman. “If this proposal passes, we’d go from having one of the nation’s lowest gas taxes to having one of the highest in one fell swoop. It’s just too much, too fast.”

Increasing opposition from lawmakers who had already signaled their support for the gas tax increase also delayed the Senate vote, according to Bateman, including Democrat Sen. Ray Lesniak of Union.

“Sweeney’s losing people, at least 4 or 5,” Bateman said.