Reporters Uncover Lawmakers’ New Jersey Wireless Tax Rip-Off

Published November 16, 2016

The New Jersey state government has been misusing revenue from a government fund intended to pay for maintenance and improvement of emergency services, according to an investigation by local newspaper reporters.

In 2004, New Jersey lawmakers placed a 90-cent tax on consumers’ monthly cell phone bills, intending to use the fee’s revenue to fund upgrades to improve the accuracy of government emergency service systems, such as 911. The law provides for revenue from the fee to be placed in the 911 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund, a state fund distributing financial aid to local and regional governments.

In October 2016, investigators for NJ Advance Media, a media company owning area newspapers such as the Newark Star-Ledger, found only about 15 percent of state telecom fees collected have actually been used for government emergency service systems. The remaining $1.2 billion in telecom fees were diverted to fill deficits in the budgets of government agencies such as the New Jersey State Police, according to the news reporters’ investigation.

Calls for Phase-Out

Scott Mackey, a former chief economist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says New Jersey lawmakers have ripped off consumers in the state.

“Wireless consumers have been paying 911 fees for the last decade or so, with the understanding that these funds would be used to fund the 911 system,” Mackey said. “If the fees are not going to be spent for 911 purposes, the fee should be reduced or eliminated. Given the state’s history of using 911 funds for other purposes, consumers should not be asked to pay higher 911 fees until all of the 90 cents per month currently being collected is used for 911 purposes.”

 Mackey says getting rid of the 911 fee would be fairer to taxpayers.

“Given the importance of the 911 system to all New Jersey citizens, perhaps it is time to phase out the 911 fee altogether and fund the 911 system from general revenues,” Mackey said. “Flat fees per line are more burdensome on lower-income families with multiple wireless phones. Funding 911 from general revenues might be a fairer way to pay for this vital public service.”

Suggests Using General Revenue

James Schuler, vice president of state affairs for CTIA, a nonprofit membership organization representing wireless service companies, says the 911 fund should be dissolved and emergency service upgrades funded with general revenue.

“The 911 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund should benefit the public safety professionals and wireless consumers who are funding the emergency communications system,” Schuler said. “As a core government function, general revenue should fund public safety.”