Sabrina Banks, an 18-year-old freshman, has never pumped her own gas. She grew up in New Jersey and never had to.
“I don’t even know how,” Mrs. Banks said with a quick laugh before entering a Bed Bath & Beyond store in Brick, NJ.
For now, she doesn’t have to learn: A brief but intense push to repeal a law banning drivers in New Jersey from pumping their own fuel at gas stations has reached a speed bump, if not a complete dead end.
Nicholas Scutari, the Democratic president of the State Senate whose support would be crucial to any law change, put an end to speculation earlier this month when he said he was not in favor of changing the state’s unique policies.
New Jersey is the only state in the country to require clerks to pump gas for all customers, a law that’s been in effect for 73 years and which a majority of residents have repeatedly told polls they support. The oddity is often worn as a badge of honor on T-shirts and bumper stickers that proudly exclaim “Jersey Girls Don’t Pump Gas.”
Earlier this month, self-service gas proponents again introduced a bill that would allow drivers to pump their own fuel, an effort supported by a gas station industry group that pops up regularly. Widely seen as a third track for politicians, the proposal never went far.
But proponents of the legislation, who have framed it as a matter of driver choice at a time when most major supermarkets and stores offer cash-and-carry counters, said they believed a combination of circumstances could have given it a better chance.
Gas prices are high, making the promise of even pennies in savings more powerful. Workers have become harder to find during the pandemic, a shortage that station owners say is forcing them to close fuel pumps regularly. And the governor suggested in a televised news conference a new openness to the proposal as a way to make New Jersey more affordable.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re going out of our way to ban something that pretty much the rest of the world allows,” said Senator Declan O’Scanlon Jr., a Monmouth County Republican and long-time supporter of self-service gasoline.
Voters — especially Democrats — seem to disagree. A recent Rutgers Eagleton poll found that 73 percent of those polled said they’d rather have someone else pump their gas. About 82 percent of Democrats preferred full service, compared to 64 percent of Republicans. And nearly 90 percent of women said they’d rather have a clerk pump their gas, compared with 55 percent of men, the poll found.
More about gas prices in New York and New Jersey
The bill would require owners of stations with more than four pumps to offer a full-service option between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. It was introduced in the Assembly, but is unlikely to make it through the Senate without Mr. Scutari’s support.
“The people of New Jersey are very clear about wanting to preserve the system we have now,” said Mr. Scutari in a policy statement first reported by the New Jersey Monitor. He also said he was not convinced that the addition of self-service lanes would lead to lower gas prices.
Still, he left a small window of hope open to supporters of self-serve gasoline. “If public sentiment changes or if there is factual data showing that it would drastically cut costs,” said Mr. Scutari in a text message. “I would reconsider.”
In 2016, a former Republican governor, Chris Christie, made a similar argument for not supporting self-service gas.
“In the last poll we did on this question, 78 percent of women in New Jersey said they were against self-service gas. Seventy-eight percent!” he reportedly said at the time. “You can’t find 78 percent of people in New Jersey who have it with something†
Three years later, Mr. Murphy similarly objected.
“I will not commit political suicide in East Orange this morning,” the governor said in 2019 when asked about self-service gas.
But when asked about the proposed legislation earlier this month, he didn’t rule out approving a self-service gas option, though he remained non-committal.
“I’m not necessarily signing up for that because I need to understand what impact it would have,” said Mr. Murphy.
In 2016, New Jersey gas prices were the second lowest in the country, worth nearly $2 a gallon. That year, Mr. Christie passed a law that increased the gas tax by 23 cents per gallon. The additional fee paid for the elimination of the state tax on large estates resulted in a slight reduction in sales tax and created a formula-based funding stream for transportation projects that resulted in additional increases and one gas tax cut.
The state tax on gasoline is now 42.4 cents a gallon, and there has been little discussion of temporarily suspending the tax, as several other states have done to offset the recent price spike.
On Wednesday, the average price of a gallon of gasoline in New Jersey was $4.20, three cents less than the national average of $4.23 and about 14 cents less than New York, according to the American Automotive Association.
Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, C-Store and Automotive Association, a trade group, said he believed allowing self-service gasoline would lower overheads, increase sales and lower prices.
Perhaps more importantly, he said, it would alleviate the hiring challenges that gas stations now face. A self-service option would allow station owners to keep all pumps open, rather than block lanes when there aren’t enough workers, a problem that could lead to longer lines for gas, he said.
“Orange cones have blocked pumps in the past two years – it’s not new, it’s just become more commonplace,” said Mr. Risalvato.
The 1949 statute forbidding self-service in New Jersey dates back to a time when the practice was rare and the justification for entrusting only station workers to pump gas was safety. Since then, every other state except Oregon has made liberal use of self-service gas lanes. (Oregon mandates that clerks pump fuel for drivers at many gas stations, but makes a big exception for rural areas of the state.)
In New Jersey, the 1949 statute trying to overthrow Mr. Risalvato actually sprang from a lobbying effort by the same group he now leads.
The owner of a gas station in Hackensack, NJ, became upset when a competitor, deviating from the custom of the day, began allowing drivers to pump their own gas. This allowed the gas station to sell gas for less than the 22 cents per gallon that competitors were charging, Mr. Risalvato.
“All the competing gas stations were confused and said, ‘Hey, he’s going to steal all our customers,’” said Mr Risalvato.
Levent Sertbas owns three family-run Exxon stations in Bergen County, New Jersey. His wife, daughters and brother often work at the stations, but he said he was desperate for additional workers. He said he could hire three people locally if someone came to apply for jobs that pay $14 an hour.
“Everyone is now looking for workers,” said Mr. Sertbas, 54. “This is something that people don’t want to do anymore. They have to work outside, interact with the environment – hot, cold.
“How am I going to compete with Amazon or Target?” he said. “There’s no way.”
When he has a staff shortage, he shuts down certain pumps to make the work manageable for a single employee. Frustrated drivers regularly climb out of their cars, he said, to remove the nozzle from their filled tanks instead of waiting for an employee to service another car.
Three times in the past year, he said he had to close a station for several hours due to staff shortages.
“If I close, I won’t make any money,” says Mr. Sertbas, which operates convenience stores in addition to the gas stations. “And if you don’t come to the station, you don’t come into the store.”