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11-2-15 Property Taxes Remain a Forefront Issue



A transportation fund that’s running on fumes and an out-of-whack state-worker retirement system are just two of the issues that will grab lawmakers’ attention after the Assembly election

Property taxes have been on the rise in New Jersey for years, through Democratic and Republican administrations, with state politicians trying everything from rebate checks to spending caps to fix the situation. Yet the average New Jersey property-tax bill went up again last year and is now at an all-time high of $8,161.

Next week, voters statewide will get a chance to fight back, with all 80 state Assembly seats on the ballot. Yet there’s little reason right now to expect anything will change when it comes to property taxes.

That’s because there’s a wide partisan divide on the solution to this problem in Trenton, and it’s only growing wider as Christie shifts more to the right as he pursues the 2016 GOP presidential nomination and as his popularity sags further in New Jersey. The current makeup of state legislative districts and campaign-spending advantages maintained by Democratic incumbents also give little reason to believe a message-sending shakeup is on the way.

And no matter what happens next week, lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature will have more immediate issues to deal with. These include figuring out how torenew funding for state transportation projects and how to handle a growing obligation to a public-worker pension system that covers an estimated 770,000 current and retired employees.

Still, Assembly Republicans have tried to make the case to voters getting ready to go to the polls on Tuesday that they offer the most hope when it comes to addressing property taxes. Like Christie, the Republicans favor sweeping changes to public-employee benefits and to the formula that dictates how state aid is distributed to schools in New Jersey, arguing both changes would ease the burden on suburban homeowners.

The Republicans are also hoping that a series of stories published earlier this month in the Asbury Park Press and other Gannett newspapers in New Jersey that highlighted the growing burden of property taxes has stoked voter frustration on the issue. For every $1 in savings proposed in Trenton, the newspaper analysis determined there has been $2,800 in new spending proposed.

 “Who is going to give the taxpayers relief? What have the Democrats told you about their plans to change direction? Nothing,” said Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) during a news conference held with other GOP leaders in the State House yesterday.

But Democrats counter that it’s Republicans who have stood in the way of changes that would benefit New Jersey property taxpayers the most. For example, it was Christie and other Republicans who opposed a proposal to fully fund the state’s school-aid law by shifting more of the burden off homeowners and onto millionaires in the form of an income-tax hike. A similar effort that would have used the increased revenue from millionaires to boost middle-class property tax relief was also opposed by Republicans.

“Let’s remember that actions speak louder than words, and Republicans fail that test miserably,” said Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats. “These Christie Republicans have repeatedly -- repeatedly -- opposed and voted against property-tax relief programs that would have especially helped New Jersey’s middle-class.”

For Christie’s part, he hasn’t done much campaigning in New Jersey this year since he’s been focused primarily on trying to become a more viable presidential contender. And joining a chorus of Assembly Republicans in an attack centered on state property-tax policies would mean conceding -- just as he’s trying to convince voters nationally that he can fix the country’s biggest problems -- that he hasn’t fully addressed the issue New Jerseyans care most about.

Earlier in his tenure, which began in 2010, Christie worked with Democrats who control both the Assembly and Senate to enact changes that affected property taxes, including a 2 percent cap on local property-tax levy increases. But the relationship between Christie and Democratic legislative leaders has now largely soured, especially after Christie reneged on a deal that called for specific increases in state funding for the pension system.

A statement from Christie spokesman Brian Murray yesterday suggested the two sides remain far apart. “We need reforms to control the expense put on the backs of taxpaying families and to provide direct relief -- unfortunately we have seen no interest in those reforms from the Democrats who control the Legislature,” Murray said.

Christie is also in a weakened bargaining position this year due to his low popularity among New Jersey voters. A recent survey conducted by the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll found only 35 percent of the state’s registered voters had a favorable opinion of Christie, and that figure dropped to 25 percent when voters were asked if they approved specifically of his handling of the tax issue.

Derek Roseman, a spokesman for this year’s Assembly Democrat campaign effort, said seizing on that voter discontent with the governor hasn’t been a big campaign theme this year.

“Our opponents' records are the albatrosses around their necks. When that record can be directly tied to a sinking governorship, it's just a heavier albatross,” Roseman said.

And the Democrats are not expected to lose a seat next week from their current 47-31 advantage in the Assembly. They may even build on that margin with two vacancies due to be filled because the current state legislative map largely favors incumbents, and only a handful of districts statewide are truly competitive.

New state campaign-finance data released yesterday shows Democratic candidates have outspent Republicans up to this point $8.8 million to $3.1 million.

Democrats have also been helped by millions more in spending by outside groups, including those supported by the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have also been more focused this year on infrastructure funding as the state’s Transportation Trust Fund is set to run out of money by the middle of next year. Current projections show the fund’s current source of revenue, New Jersey’s 14.5-cent gas tax, will only generate enough money to pay down the fund’s significant debt as of June 30, 2016. That would leave no money left for new road, bridge, and rail improvements unless the tax is increased or a new source of revenue is identified.

What to do about the $80 billion pension system has also been a big issue this year in the wake of a June ruling issued by the state Supreme Court that enabled Christie’s administration to back away from a schedule of increased state pension contributions that was a major part of a 2011 employee-benefits reform law.

By allowing the smaller state payments, the pension system’s current $40 billion unfunded liability is only expected to grow unless new actions are taken.