In New Jersey, the Budget is the Easy Part
Freshman New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, won a big victory this week when he pushed a deeply controversial state budget through the Democratic-led Legislature by the narrowest of margins. But the tough work lies ahead, as Christie and lawmakers gird for a special session — possibly during the Independence Day weekend — to address a problem that has frustrated state leaders for years: New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property-tax burden.
In a speech to the Legislature on Thursday (July 1), Christie asked lawmakers to meet in a special session this weekend and demanded that they approve either a constitutional amendment or legislation to cap annual property-tax increases at 2.5 percent, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported . It is unclear whether lawmakers will actually convene in Trenton on Saturday, however, because Christie "has no legal authority to dictate the Legislature's agenda," the paper noted. But the governor is ramping up the pressure.
"We will work every day until we do one or the other (legislation or a constitutional amendment)," Christie said. "We cannot take a vacation when our citizens get no vacation from escalating property taxes. We do not deserve a break when these taxes are breaking the backs of our families. We cannot leave this town for the summer and leave our citizens with an ever-growing property-tax bill to pay because we refused to act."
For months, Christie has demanded a 2.5-percent cap on property-tax hikes, but his speech represented a slight shift in position. Previously, Christie had insisted that the change come in the form of a constitutional amendment, but he left open the possibility on Thursday that he would accept legislation instead. But he ruled out accepting a 2.9-percent statutory cap on property taxes that lawmakers approved earlier in the week.
In a commentary piece on newjerseynewsroom.com, Alan Steinberg, a former Environmental Protection Agency official in New Jersey and a close observer of the state's politics, argued that the governor's shift on his call for a constitutional amendment gives him a strategic advantage over Democrats in the days and weeks ahead — he now needs fewer votes in the Legislature, for one thing — and predicated that Christie will again emerge victorious.
"By agreeing to a statutory, rather than a constitutional cap," Steinberg wrote, "Christie has deprived the Democrats of their only argument on the issue that might gain some public support: namely that a constitutional cap would be far more difficult to amend than a statutory cap if an emergency situation warranted a change."
Property taxes are a hot topic nationally this year. Voters in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Missouri will consider measures that would cut or cap property taxes when they go to the polls this fall. The measures were put on the ballot by the legislatures.