One of Governor Christie’s top Cabinet officials boasted during a legislative hearing on Thursday that the Republican governor’s property tax policies have been “a resounding success.” Democrats bristled, pointing to record-high bills compounded by slashed relief.
Also Thursday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono, a fellow state lawmaker, launched a new website, christiepricetag.com, which allows voters to calculate how much their property tax burden has increased since Christie took office in early 2010.
Though the November election is still months off, the political debate over property taxes is under way with both Republicans and Democrats trying to stake a leading position among potential voters. And in New Jersey, the property tax is among the issues that can decide an election. Christie is seeking a second term, and control of the state Legislature is also up for grabs this year with all 120 seats on the ballot.
New Jersey voters perennially tell pollsters that the state’s high property tax bills — averaging nearly $8,000 statewide, a record — are their top issue when it comes to choosing a candidate. And what’s said during legislative committee meetings during the springtime often shows up in campaign ads broadcast several months later.
This year, Christie has been taking credit for slowing the growth rate of the average New Jersey property tax bill after a decade that saw bills rise 70 percent. Though official numbers have yet to be released by his administration for 2012, he has said the growth rate has slowed to less than 2 percent.
Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable told members of the Assembly Budget Committee on Thursday that the combination of capping local property tax levy hikes and making public employees pay more for their pension and health benefits is working.
“By any measure the property tax reforms have been a resounding success,” Constable said. “We’ve now had two consecutive years of the smallest property tax increases in more than 20 years.”
Constable, appearing before lawmakers reviewing Christie’s proposed $32.9 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, also pressed the committee to make further changes in an effort to ease property taxes, including a ban on payouts to public employees for unused sick days.
“The current accumulated sick and vacation payout liability for municipalities statewide is almost $900 million,” he said.
But Democrats on the panel took issue with Constable’s statements.
They sent Christie a bill that would have capped payouts for unused sick days, but he vetoed it. And they said the governor’s reduction of funding for the Homestead relief program — which once funded rebate checks averaging $1,000 but now pays for direct credits averaging $518 and $409 for qualified seniors and younger taxpayers — has yielded a higher net property tax burden.
An article published earlier this week by the policy-driven website njspotlight.com showed the net increase in property taxes during Christie’s first three years in office has been nearly 19 percent when the Homestead cuts are taken into consideration. “It seems those comments are structured in a vacuum away from the property tax bill a person is actually paying,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. “The bottom line tax bill, the net amount that residents are forced to pay, is growing much larger.”
Republicans on the panel countered by challenging Democrats to support a new income tax credit that Christie is pushing this year. It would give a $100 benefit to qualified homeowners and renters in 2014.
“Our residents have suffered long enough,” said Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, R-Morris. “We should move forward with that tax cut as quickly as possible.”
Senator Buono, a longtime state lawmaker from Middlesex County, tried to seize on the property tax issue by launching the new website.
Visitors who enter the name of their town can find out how much “your family lost” to Christie’s policies. It also calculates education funding gaps for every town because the Christie administration has not fully funded the state’s education aid formula, though Christie has called for record education spending in his proposed budget.
“While Governor Christie has tried desperately to rewrite his record on property taxes, the facts are clear that, under the Christie administration, property taxes have skyrocketed and school funding has been recklessly slashed,” a Buono spokesman, David Turner, said.
Christie’s campaign responded to the website by questioning why Buono is highlighting the tax issue.
“We know that Barbara Buono will lob any negative attack in the book to distract from her record of voting for 154 tax and fee increases on New Jersey families,” a Christie campaign spokesman, Kevin Roberts, said.