Late last month, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have increased taxes on New Jersey’s millionaires, despite the state having a $10.7 billion deficit. Christie preferred to make up the difference in cuts to education and public health services.
Now, he’s proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would cap property taxes, which according to a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would force the state to further slash funding for education and other vital services:
[A] property tax cap in New Jersey is likely to end up reducing essential educational programs and services — as well as other public services, as it has in Massachusetts — and by itself would do nothing to create significant efficiencies.
Using constitutional amendments as blunt instruments to push an anti-tax agenda can seriously backfire; just look at California, where Prop. 13 has wreaked havoc, and given that state’s Republican minority the ability to block even common sense tax increases (like raising the tax on tobacco, which the California GOP has rejected 14 times).
New Jersey undeniably has a problem with property taxes, as it has the third highest in the country as a percentage of income. But that comes from the state’s near complete reliance on them to fund public services. In fact, “localities are nearly entirely dependent on property tax revenues.” But contrary to what Christie would have you believe, New Jersey is in the middle of the pack when it comes to overall taxation (with the 20th highest overall, as a percentage of income).
Massachusetts’ education system only recovered from that state’s experiment with a property tax cap following a huge infusion of public funding. And according to CBPP, Massachusetts is still paying the price for its blunt cap in terms of increased wait times for firefighters and police response, public libraries shutting down, and roads deteriorating.
“Whereas Massachusetts responded with massive infusions of state aid, Christie is cutting state aid,” said Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association. “That’s a formula for destroying the public schools, hardly the act of a savior.” “If this is a tool, it’s a chainsaw,” added Massachusetts state Rep. Jay Kaufman, who has worked within the confines of his state’s law. “It just chops and cuts. I think you make much better policy with scalpels than you do with chainsaws.”
Christie is not alone in his line of thinking. Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), for instance, has proposed that Texas adopt a Prop. 13 type amendment that would make tax increases next to impossible. But simply throwing a cap on taxes is not a responsible way to budget and it doesn’t take into account the real negative effect budget cuts have on those who count on public services. As CBPP pointed out, New Jersey could allow localities to use different taxes to fund services and streamline many of its education programs to find savings, thus enabling a property tax reduction.