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Christie should battle N.J. Supreme Court and not NJEA

SabrinM012810_optBY MURRAY SABRIN
COMMENTARY

Governor Christie is getting national attention for his blunt style and outspokenness as he travels around the country campaigning for fellow Republicans. Christie's "in your face" approach has even spilled over into the Tea Party crowd. Last week, the governor won a presidential straw poll in Virginia, edging out both Sarah Palin and Rep. Ron Paul. However, in a culture that worships style over substance, he has to do more in the Garden State than bash the New Jersey Education Association if he has any thoughts about living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.

At a recent town hall meeting in an upscale suburban New Jersey community, an area that like many others lost all its state aid this year because of the fiscal crisis, Governor Christie responded, "I can't blatantly violate the law, I've got to change the law."

No Governor Christie, you, state legislators and members of the Supreme Court need to uphold your oath to defend and follow the New Jersey Constitution, when it comes to state aid to local schools. You do not need to change the law; you and the legislature have the constitutional authority to allocate state aid without edicts from the Supreme Court.

Below in its entirety is Article VIII, Section I, paragraph 7 that become effective December 2, 1976; amended effective December 6, 1984; amended effective December 7, 2006.

a. "No tax shall be levied on personal incomes of individuals, estates and trusts of this State unless the entire net receipts therefrom shall be received into the treasury, placed in a perpetual fund designated the Property Tax Relief Fund and be annually appropriated, pursuant to formulas established from time to time by the Legislature, to the several counties, municipalities and school districts of this State exclusively for the purpose of reducing or offsetting property taxes. In no event, however, shall a tax so levied on personal incomes be levied on payments received under the federal Social Security Act, the federal Railroad Retirement Act, or any federal law which substantially reenacts the provisions of either of those laws. (emphasis added.)

b. There shall be annually credited from the General Fund and placed in a special account in the perpetual Property Tax Relief Fund established pursuant to this paragraph, which account shall be designated the Property Tax Reform Account, an amount equal to the annual revenue derived from a tax rate of 0.5% imposed under the "Sales and Use Tax Act," P.L.1966, c.30 (C.54:32B-1 et seq.), as amended and supplemented, or any other subsequent law of similar effect, which amount shall be appropriated annually by the Legislature exclusively for the purpose of property tax reform.

The New Jersey State Constitution is unequivocal. The legislature has the prerogative to use the proceeds from the income tax and 0.5% of the sales tax as it sees fit to offset New Jersey's ever-spiraling property taxes. The Supreme Court does not have any jurisdiction as to how the Property Tax Relief Fund — the state income tax — can be allocated. But the egregious New Jersey Supreme Court Abbott decision took the state aid formula out of the hands of the legislature and mandated a set of education reforms as outlined by the Education Law Center, which filed the lawsuit that led to the Court's decision. These reforms include:

  1. Rigorous content standards-based education, supported by per-pupil funding equal to spending in successful suburban schools
  2. Universal, well-planned and high quality preschool education for all three- and four-year olds
  3. Supplemental ("at-risk") programs to address student and school needs attributed to high-poverty, including intensive early literacy, small class size and social and health services
  4. New and rehabilitated facilities to adequately house all programs, relieve overcrowding, and eliminate health and safety violations
  5. School and district reforms to improve curriculum and instruction, and for effective and efficient use of funds to enable students to achieve state standards
  6. State accountability for effective and timely implementation, and to ensure progress in improving student achievement (emphasis added)

The Supreme Court's Abbott decision cited the state's constitution "thorough and efficient" clause as the basis for its ruling. According to the constitution, Article VIII, Section 4, Paragraph 1: ‘The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years." (Emphasis added)

New Jersey does not have a "system" of free public schools. There is no "unified" school system in the state. On the contrary, we have a decentralized public school "system." Local residents elect school boards, which in turn hire superintendents who are the chief executive officers of each school district. In short, for the Supreme Court to claim that state aid prior to the Abbott decision was in violation of the constitution's "through and efficient" clause" is disingenuous at best since there is no statewide public school system.

The Supreme Court erred in the Abbott decision and should have ruled that the legislature must create a "statewide education system" and spend the same amount of funds per pupil. That would be a correct interpretation of the ‘thorough and efficient" clause. Such a ruling would lead to "education funding equality." Instead, the Supreme Court turned the constitution on its head and ordered more state involvement in local education decision contradicting the letter of the supreme law of the state, the constitution.

In fact, while the court's Abbott decision requires spending to increase to level in the most successful suburban school districts, spending in many of the Abbotts have exploded to more than 50% of the most successful suburban school districts, with little educational achievement to show for the increased funding.

The state constitution does not authorize preschool education. Yet, the Supreme Court ordered the state — in effect, suburban taxpayers — to pay for this authorized expenditure.

Governor Christie does not need to change the law to allocate school aid funding formula. He has the state constitution on his side.

In sum, Governor Christie could easily become the GOP nominee for president in 2012 if he takes on the New Jersey Supreme Court and supports the "nullification" of decisions that are not based on the state constitution and supports a fiscal conservative agenda, including opposing cap-and-trade and Obamacare. He also must embrace massive spending and tax cuts and sound money as part of a pro free enterprise platform. If he has the vision, Governor Christie could become the Thomas Jefferson of the 21st century.

Murray Sabrin is professor of finance at Ramapo College. He was the Libertarian Party nominee for governor in 1997 and a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and 2008. Check www.MurraySabrin.com for more of his writings.

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