Planting new ideas in the Garden State

December 08, 2015

By Shanna O’Mara

Gov. Chris Christie has been making headlines since he was elected in 2010, but, more often than not, he does so for all the wrong reasons, according to State Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

“Our governor is renowned for his intolerance for anyone who may disagree with him, and the list of those who have suffered his displeasure is endless,” Wisniewski said. “We all know the quotes. ‘Sit down, and shut up,’ ‘Someone ought to take a bat out on her,’ or, my personal favorite, ‘Numb nuts.’ The governor of the state of New Jersey, while not even in the state, called the head of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association a pig. There is a buyer’s remorse that has set in with the voters who thought Christie would be the one to shake things up. They’ve since learned that his rhetoric has little relationship to his performance.

“It’s no wonder that it’s hard to have a thoughtful and honest conversation without it devolving into a war on words. We need to have an open dialogue if we are going to understand the problems we face and commonly find solutions that we can embrace for the good of our state.”

Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) spoke in the Mercer Room on Dec. 3 at an event sponsored by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics about problems in the Garden State as well as his proposals to do right by the place he calls home. He is widely expected to enter the governor’s race in 2018.

Wisniewski has sponsored laws that expanded safety inspections of school buses, renovated the Division of Motor Vehicles, improved the safety of teenage drivers and strengthened fire safety regulations in college residence halls, among many others.

Wisniewski was elected to the Assembly in 1995 and has been re-elected 10 times since. He has represented Middlesex County for 19 years and is also a deputy speaker and chairman of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee. He was elected to chair this committee in 2001.

“As both a member and as chair, I’ve come to learn a great deal about how critically important transportation is to our state,” Wisniewski said. “The infrastructure that New Jersey hosts and the need to maintain that infrastructure contributes so much to our economy, and that is why I’m a vocal advocate for finding a long-term funding solution to fund our Transportation Trust Fund.”

While currently advocating for a sustainable source to finance transportation, a major revenue generator in New Jersey, Wisniewski is also working to reform the Port Authority.

“We’ve had steep hikes in Port Authority tolls — 50 percent over four years,” he said. “And we have increases in New Jersey Transit fares, the largest increases in the history of New Jersey Transit. And so, we see temporary measures being taken, not to enable the Transportation Trust Fund to succeed and thrive, but to be able to get through the moment.”

These “temporary measures,” Wisniewski said, were taken by a procrastinating Christie who wants to push the issue back while he focuses on his presidential campaign.

“I have a proposal on the table,” he said. “I’ve had it on the table for quite some time. It would increase the gas tax. I am one of the few [potential gubernatorial candidates] who has been going around the state talking about the need to raise the gas tax. My proposal raises revenue, but it costs the average driver in New Jersey 50 cents a day. When we think about the costs that we all endure every single day because of the inadequacies of our transportation system, asking people for 50 cents to be able to correct all of those ills is not necessarily a bad deal.”

Wisniewski says that with recent toll hikes on the George Washington Bridge and the frequency with which many New Jersians travel into the city, his plan may ease the financial strain that many face.

“Think about this,” he said. “You live in Bergen County. You earn $100,000 a year because you have a job in Manhattan, and you pay the Port Authority $15 every time you cross that bridge. By the end of the year, you will have paid more in tolls to the Port Authority than you will have paid income tax to the state of New Jersey.”

As a result of these toll hikes, Wisniewski and the Assembly Transportation Committee undertook an investigation that would soon become known as “Bridgegate.”

“We sent out probably a dozen open public record act requests to the Port Authority,” he said. “Those OPRA requests were routinely ignored. What we were looking for was justification for the enormous toll increases. It was that subpoena authority and our digging that led to the now infamous memo that was sent by a young lady named Bridget Kelly that said, ‘Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.’”

On Sep. 9, 2013, what was for many the first day of school, two of three toll lanes were purposely closed at the main toll plaza for the upper level of the George Washington Bridge to create traffic jams during morning rush hour in Fort Lee. The lanes did not reopen until Sept. 13.

“Our investigation as a committee is not to look at who should be charged with a crime, who should go to jail,” Wisniewski said. “Our investigation as a committee is to look at it and figure out, ‘How can we stop that kind of abuse of power from happening again?’”

Wisniewski said he saw that same abuse of power earlier that day when he spoke at the statehouse about a bill that would have made it more difficult for those with a history of mental illness to obtain a firearm. The governor conditionally vetoed this bill, and although many New Jersey politicians previously supported the restrictions on firearm purchases, several were now intimidated by Christie’s actions, according to Wisniewski.

“This bill passed in the early summer by a vote of 74 to nothing,” Wisniewski said. “The governor sent back a conditional veto. Of the 74 who supported this bill, we only had 50 votes today to do the override, four votes short of the number required.

“As to whether I might run [for governor],the decision is one that I’m considering,” Wisniewski said. “In the meantime, I’m going to continue to do my job as a member of the Assembly, continue to point out the problems that I see with how our state is run, continue to advocate for solutions that I think will make our state a better place and continue to work to make New Jersey a better place for all of us to call home.”

Junior public relations major Valerie Bell said that although she lives in Pennsylvania and could not vote for Wisniewski if he ran for governor, she would support his campaign.

“What he said about gun control — about the bill that he wanted to pass, that didn’t go through unfortunately — that’s what I agree mostly with,” Bell said. “Recently, there was a mass shooting in California, so that’s a really important issue, especially now.”