State lawmakers are considering encouraging the recycling of snack bags and cigarette butts, but the first voting session since the summer break doesn't include a plan to pay for road and bridge work.
Lawmakers returned to the statehouse for voting sessions on Thursday, but an agreement between the Democrat-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Christie to pay for the state's expired transportation trust fund remains out of reach.
Instead, lawmakers are voting on dozens of other measures, from a resolution to encourage the upcycling of hard-to-recycle items such as plastic snack bags, cigarette butts and single-use coffee pods to legislation headed for Christie's desk to allow deployed National Guardsmen to defer mortgage interest payments. Both measures passed.
Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney said the stumbling block over transportation funding stems from the cost of cutting taxes that Christie and lawmakers are considering as part of a possible deal.
The lack of big-ticket items on the agenda caught some lawmakers' attention. Republican Assemblyman Scott Rumana called it the "Seinfeld" session, referring to comedian Jerry Seinfeld's TV show about nothing.
Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said Thursday's voting was penciled in with the aim of achieving an agreement on transportation but discussions were ongoing.
The failure to reach a deal has not led to the kind of catastrophe like a bridge collapse that some advocates of a deal suggested could happen, but the broke fund has had other effects, mostly on transportation workers.
"With the busy season for construction workers rapidly passing by as the weather cools, this nightmare worsens by the day for these families," said Greg Lalevee, chairman of Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative.
About 4,000 transportation workers were laid off over the summer, said Anthony Attanasio, executive director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association. For context, New Jersey's three-month average job growth rate is about 3,500 jobs, state treasury chief economist James Wooster said.
The number of state transportation projects put out to bid also is sputtering. Since the July 1 start of the 2017 fiscal year, only six project bids have been posted, according to Department of Transportation data, compared with 11 bids for the same period in fiscal 2016.
The $1.6 billion fund lost authority for new spending on July 1, after Christie and lawmakers failed to reach a deal. Christie and Prieto agreed on a plan to raise the gas tax by 23 cents a gallon while reducing the sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent over nearly two years, but the plan stalled in the Democrat-led Senate. Sweeney has pushed for his own plan, which would raise the gas tax while phasing out the estate tax.
Christie also ordered a shutdown of transportation projects in July except for those paid for with federal dollars in lieu of a deal.
He said he will only support a plan that represents "tax fairness," or cutting taxes by as much or more as they would be raised. He has declined to detail his discussions with lawmakers on reaching a deal.