Although an overwhelming majority of residents are opposed to Governor Jon Corzine?s 800 percent toll hike scheme, he is forging ahead with it, even going as far as threatening to cut property tax relief if his plan is not approved.

Speaking to nearly 150 mayors assembled at the State House on Wednesday, Corzine warned there will not be enough money to fund property tax relief in the upcoming budget unless his monetization scheme is approved. He also promised local officials specific road, bridge and mass transit improvements in exchange for their support for his toll hike proposal.

Corzine’s tactics don?t sit well with Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce.

“Governor Corzine?s claim that property tax rebates and tax relief could be in danger unless his massive toll hike and nearly $40 billion borrowing scheme is approved is tantamount to political extortion,” said DeCroce, R-Morris and Passaic. DeCroce said he found it very disturbing that the state?s highest public official would resort to threats and bribes in an effort to sell his driving tax plan to local and state officials and the public.

DeCroce added that the threat to withhold property tax rebates this year is confirmation of the Democrat?s failure to provide property tax reform despite their claims to the contrary.

“So much for the ?permanency? of the property tax rebates promised by Governor Corzine and the Democrats following the administration?s sales tax increase,” said DeCroce. “The threat confirms what Republicans have been saying for two years that unless an amendment to the state constitution is approved to guarantee the permanency of property tax relief, promises by Corzine and Democrats to the contrary were meaningless.

“New Jersey taxpayers should not be pawns in a political blackmail plot,” he continued. “One newspaper that found the tactic repugnant equated it in an editorial to ‘bribery.’ I couldn?t agree more.”

In an editorial published January 16th, The Record of Hackensack observed: “When the governor holds out the prospect of relieving so much misery, provided we go along with him, it feels a little like bribery.”

The governor is feeling heat from both sides of the aisle in Trenton as both Republicans and Democrats are calling on the governor to release additional details of his monetization plan.

Senate Republican Leader Thomas Kean Jr., R-Essex, Morris, Somerset and Union, joined DeCroce in calling on the governor to release all the documents he used in preparation of the proposal.

Meanwhile, Senator Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, said, “As you peel back the layers of the onion to get to the core, you?re finding more and more questions to be answered.” Senate President Richard Codey, D-Essex, and Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, joined Buono in asking Corzine to come forward with more in-depth information.

Last week, the governor took his toll increase plan on the road in an effort to garner support for the highly unpopular proposal which, according to a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll released Thursday, is opposed by 56 percent of New Jerseyans. Only 15 percent said they were okay with the plan while 29 percent were undecided. Of the 29 percent undecided, 70 percent said they were, at a minimum, leaning towards opposing the plan. Another poll conducted earlier in the week by The Record revealed that 52 percent of residents oppose the plan while 78 percent prefer cuts in state programs and layoffs first.

Hundreds of people turned out at each of the first of three of 21 planned public meetings that were held in Essex, Bergen and Morris counties. While the majority of people voiced opposition and grave concerns about the plan, the crowds seemed rather docile, leading Assemblyman Richard Merkt to suspect a large portion of the seemingly sedate audience may be a result of the governor?s office attempt to stack the meetings with his supporters.

He said the real representation of public opinion has been from those who have attended the meetings on their own to question the toll hike plan and from the angry emails being sent to legislators.

“It?s obvious the governor is reaching out to his supporters and encouraging them to attend these town hall meetings in hopes he will be able to give the illusion that the public in general is backing his monster driving tax,” said Merkt, R-Morris. “What this state needs and what taxpayers deserve is an honest debate, not a stage show.”

Unlike Corzine, who claims his office has not been inundated with complaints about his proposal, Merkt said he has received a number of emails from constituents who are up in arms about the planned increase in tolls and borrowing.

“The emails I am receiving about this not only lack the ‘polite civility’ of the first two town meetings, they are absolutely venomous,” exclaimed Merkt. “Mr. Corzine is packing these meetings just like he packs the Assembly gallery for his State-of-the-State message. His supporters are there to clap and cheer for the governor.”

Merkt challenged the governor to come clean and tell the public how many supporters his office contacted urging their attendance at his meetings. “There is more to this than we know,” he said. “Our residents deserve much better than a dog and pony show, especially on an issue that has such grave and far reaching consequences for our state and its taxpayers.”

Assembly Republican Whip Jon Bramnick said New Jerseyans should be “severely concerned” about statement’s made by Corzine at Saturday?s town meeting in Livingston. The governor told the audience that he doesn?t disagree “in concept” with the idea of placing new tolls on highways that are currently toll-free.

“Governor Corzine says that in ‘concept’ he may support the idea of adding toll plazas to new roads, but I think it is bad public policy,” said Bramnick, R-Union, Morris, Somerset and Essex. “New Jersey is overtaxed and our business climate is suffering and adding to that burden by placing additional tolls on our highways will not help.”

According to The Star-Ledger, Corzine told the crowd: “In concept I don?t disagree with it. And there are some places where we could look for chokepoints where there is heavy use of our infrastructure that we might be able to put tolls on.?

“The impact of these toll hikes, and the potential further impact of adding new tolls, would be widespread and devastating for our economy,” Bramnick said. “It will hurt our business environment, which is already rated among the worst in the nation, and it will be one more step toward New Jersey being unaffordable for middle class families.”

Bramnick said the increase in tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway will affect even those who don?t routinely use the roads. Guaranteed annual toll increases over decades will force more traffic onto local roads and increase the costs of transporting consumer goods.

Added DeCroce, “Corzine?s shell game is not selling well with the taxpayers because they know the way out of our fiscal problems is to reduce spending, not incur more debt. The governor?s scheme will not ‘Save Our State’ (SOS) as he claims. It will ‘Sink Our State’ by placing it further down the road to economic ruin.”

Maximum proposed toll increases ? Source: The Record ? January 9, 2008 (allows for an annual 3 percent inflation increase)

New Jersey Turnpike ? end to end ? cash
Current – $6.45 2010 – $10.25 2022 – $44.10

New Jersey Turnprike ? end to end ? EZ Pass (offpeak)
Current – $4.85 2010 – $7.70 2022 – $33.20

Garden State Parkway ? end to end
Current – $7.00 2010 – $11.15 2022 – $47.90

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