BY TOM HESTER SR.
Democrats who control the Legislature tried to one up Gov. Chris Christie Monday by announcing they would consider some of his proposals to get a grip on government costs by reviewing them with 34 proposals of their own through the summer.
As the sun rose over New Jersey Tuesday, Christie one upped the Democrats by ordering a rare special joint session of the Legislature on Thursday to address his proposed 2.5 percent annual cap on property tax hikes and government spending and 32 other proposals he has offered in an effort to reduce costs at the municipal, school and higher education levels.
The last special session was called by Gov. Jon Corzine and held on Oct. 16,2008 to receive his economic assistance and recovery plan for New Jersey, according to state Office of Legislative Services library director Peter J. Mazzei. Corzine also called a special session in July 2006 to deal with a state budget impasse that resulted in a shutdown of the state government.
On June 6, 2006, Senate President Richard J. Codey (D-Essex) and Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts (D-Camden) announced an unprecedented special session that would work throughout the summer and fall of that year with the goal of enacting property tax reforms. The Democrats on Monday approved a 2.9 percent cap on property tax increases and Christie was not happy about it.
"New Jersey residents have waited far too long for property tax relief,'' the governor said. "New Jersey families pay an average $7,281 in property taxes, up 70 percent in just 10 years. The time to act is now. We can no longer afford to wait for real, sustainable property tax relief. That is why I have determined that the public interest requires this special session."
Under state statutes, Christie has the clout to order a special session and he ordered the Legislature to convene at 10 a.m. Thursday.
A Democratic proposal to place a 2.5 percent cap on annual state spending was among the measures Democrats planned to review during the summer.
Responding to Christie's order, Assembly speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) said, "We offered the governor a reasonable alternative that provides a realistic cap immediately as opposed to an unworkable plan that would not be in effect until next year. We will listen to what the governor has to say, but hope he sees the light and signs our tougher new 2.9 percent property tax cap into law.
"We know that property taxes continue to be the top concern of New Jerseyans,'' the Assemblywoman said. "That's why on Monday I assigned nearly three dozen property tax reforms to 12 Assembly Democrats for thorough analysis during the summer in preparation for legislative action in the fall.
"Our effort will be a responsible review that brings smart reform to New Jersey,'' Oliver said. "We will not hurriedly slap together a plan that fails to bring real relief to New Jersey and cripples our ability to educate children and provide for public safety. We will do this right, without the showboating and sound bites others apparently prefer."
Assemblyman John F. McKeon (D-Essex) sponsored the measure to property tax increases at 2.9 percent annually.
"I look forward to July 1st marking the continuation of a thoughtful and thorough exchange of ideas regarding not only spending limits but systemic changes related to our long-term ability to stabilize property taxes,'' McKeon said. "However, in no uncertain terms will I nor should New Jersey lawmakers be bullied into decisions driven by politics or demagoguery particularly when it relates to something as important as an amendment to the constitution."
Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union) criticized Christie's order.
"It's easy to see why Governor Christie is turning to a special session to divert attention away from his budgets that cut $2.8 billion in property tax relief while shoving nearly two dozen new taxes onto New Jerseyans, but the public will not be fooled.
"Senior and disabled citizens will see through his plan when they don't get their property tax relief,'' Cryan said. "Hard-working homeowners will see through his plan when they get their higher property tax bills later this year. Millionaires, meanwhile, will enjoy their Christie tax break.
"It took the governor five months to present his plan, yet he expects it to be approved with little or no review in a matter of weeks,'' Cryan added. "That's not how democracy works. We have already committed to reviewing his and other ideas over the summer in anticipation of legislative action this fall, and that will continue to be our plan, no matter how many times the governor looks to show off."
William G. Dressel, director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said local government officials will support a property tax cap "if and only if it is moved as the final piece, not the centerpiece, of vital property tax relief initiatives.
"Those other initiatives include binding arbitration reform, health benefits reform, mandates relief, flexibility to deal with pension costs, utility costs, disaster and emergency response costs and other costs imposed by factors beyond the control of local leaders, and conformity of any new local caps to a new state spending cap,'' Dressel said.
"This is an historic opportunity, and one that cannot be lost. And what also cannot be lost is that the success of any cap, statutory or constitution, hinges on giving local governments the tools to lower costs for our taxpayers,'' Dressel added. "An empty toolbox means draconian cuts in local services. Now is the time to fill the toolbox."
Christie's special session demand is an additional sting to the Legislature's Democratic majority who Monday and early Tuesday had to approve the governor's $29.4 billion 2010-11 state budget, which contains $820 million in school aid and $445 million in municipal aid reductions, less aid for higher education and no property tax rebates.
"I am proud that after working with the Legislature we were able to fulfill our commitment to New Jerseyans not to raise taxes, while still closing an unprecedented $11 billion budget gap and protecting our most vulnerable citizens,'' Christie said after signing the budget. "This budget deals responsibly with the fiscal nightmare we inherited and makes the tough and necessary choices to restore fiscal sanity to our state and begin fundamental reform.
"As difficult as this process was, we are not done - not by a long shot,'' the governor added. "Without more excuses or further delay, we must move to lock in real, lasting reforms, including a constitutional cap on property taxes without loopholes or exceptions. New Jersey is tired of half measures and empty promises. Now is the time to finish the work we started and give the people a vote in controlling their property taxes."
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) said the budget raises taxes middle-class, poor, senior and disabled New Jerseyans.
"Governor Christie's signature marks an unfortunate day for New Jersey, one that steers us sway from our long-term commitment to protecting our most vulnerable residents,'' Oliver said. "Senior and disabled citizens will see their property taxes rise. The working poor will suffer from income tax increases. Families struggling to make ends meet will go without health insurance. Education and higher education will be slashed. Democrats were able to make change to make this budget better, but it's still a bad budget for working class New Jerseyans. This signature is not cause for celebration. It is a sad start to a tough year for hard-working New Jersey families."