Time To Talk Taxes In New Jersey

Time To Talk Taxes In New Jersey
By Bill Pascoe
CQ Politics
August 27, 2009

Chris Christie, the Republican nominee in this year’s race for governor of New Jersey, apparently has determined not to make property taxes a central issue of the campaign against Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine and instead to focus on corruption. And this is proving to be a costly decision.

“That decision could be the one that ends up sinking [Christie’s] campaign,” says Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s polling institute.

I say “apparently” in describing Christie’s strategy because, while it is beyond dispute that his campaign has failed to make property taxes a central issue of its platform so far, it is not necessarily true that the campaign has no plans to make tax reform the focal point of the fall campaign.

It is at least possible that the Christie campaign has made a decision to hunker down through the hot summer months, when only a relatively small segment of New Jersey voters are paying attention, and instead save its ammunition for a concentrated burst in the final weeks of the campaign.

The New Jersey electorate is notorious for making up its mind late in the campaign season. And as I’ve noted before, the Christie campaign must contend with the fact that it will be massively outspent by incumbent Corzine, a former Wall Street CEO who has invested tens of millions of his own dollars in his past campaigns for the U.S. Senate (2000) and governor (2005).

But if that is the case, the Christie camp is cutting it awfully close. The grumbling in GOP ranks throughout New Jersey is beginning to be audible. In Washington.

Look at it this way — when even the Newark Star-Ledger decides to publish a long article headlined “N.J. property taxes are largely being ignored in governor’s race,” you know it’s an issue of concern.

At first glance, the Christie campaign’s decision to focus its general election communications strategy so far on corruption instead of property taxes at least has a touch of logic to it. Christie, after all, is known best for the seven years he spent putting corrupt public officials of both parties behind bars. With a record of some 130 convictions, against zero “not guilty” verdicts, he’s got a record that would cause a weakening of the knees even in Perry Mason.

But the problem is, no one in New Jersey seems to care about that — at least, not as an issue that will help determine their votes.

In the most recent Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey, for instance, when asked, “What is the most important issue to you in deciding how to vote for governor this year?” the group which answered “political corruption” made up only 6 percent of the survey sample.

Those answering “property taxes,” by contrast, made up 16 percent of the sample, while those who answered “taxes” in general made up 13 percent of the sample.

Those who answered “income taxes” made up 1 percent of the sample, and those who answered “other taxes” made up another 1 percent.

So, all told, some variation of the tax issue was the most important voting issue for 31 percent of the survey sample, while the corruption issue was the most important voting issue for just 6 percent of the population.

When there are five times as many people who tell a pollster that Issue X is the most important issue as there are people who tell the pollster that Issue Y is the most important issue, it is an unwise campaign strategy that bases itself on discussing Issue Y.

The people running the Christie campaign are not, as some of my conservative friends think, unwise. They have many years of experience in running campaigns.

They know that having the public think well of their candidate on the ethics front is an asset. But they’re also smart enough to know that it will not, in and of itself, win an election. New Jerseyans are so inured to corruption in their politicians that no one is going to win an election on the corruption issue.

They’re smart enough to know that, for them at least, their candidate’s image as a guy with strong ethics is but a means to a larger end: It gives him credibility and trust in the eyes of the voters, credibility and trust that Christie should put to good use in explaining to the voters how he plans to get their property taxes under control.

That credibility and trust is the only thing that may cause voters to listen to him on property taxes, because recent New Jersey campaigns have featured a seemingly endless parade of candidates promising to get property taxes under control.

In 2001, Democrat Jim McGreevey — despite having raised property taxes by 70 percent during his tenure as mayor of Woodbridge, the state’s sixth-largest city — made property tax reform a central plank of his successful campaign.

In 2005, Republican nominee Doug Forrester promised a “30 in 3” plan, claiming he would reduce property tax payments by 30 percent over three years by offering a state tax credit to offset individuals’ property taxes. Democrat Corzine, who was en route to victory, was not to be outdone, upped the ante, and offered “40 in 4.”

Yet, despite the promises by both McGreevey and Corzine of reduced levies, New Jersey’s property taxes have continued to rise.

So it is passing strange that the people running the Christie campaign have failed to make a serious attempt to focus voters’ attention on property taxes, or even a more general discussion of taxes — this, despite the fact that New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation, and the second-highest income taxes.

New Jersey’s Tax Freedom Day came on April 29, the second-latest in the nation. Its Cost of Government Day, also the second-latest in the nation, won’t be here until a week from Sunday, Sept. 6.

Asked to explain the political dynamics of the property tax issue in a way that could be understood by the (granted, sophisticated) layman, Dan Clifton — a former New Jersey gubernatorial aide and expert on the state’s budget and tax problems — had this to say:

“How to think about issue from a macro and historical perspective: Under which governor has property tax growth been the lowest in the past 40 years? Answer: former Republican Gov. Christie Todd Whitman. In fact, during her tenure [1994-2001], property taxes increased by just half the amount they did during the tenures of the governors both before and after her. But the consensus view is that Whitman was the worst in history. Why? Because the Democrats spent their time out of power making an issue of property taxes repeatedly — but then did nothing to fix them once they were in power (and made it even worse). While it was difficult for Republicans to campaign on property taxes in, say, 2001, after eight years of governance, the McGreevey/Corzine eight years of governance has been horrendous on the issue. And yet, there is not even a peep coming from Republicans on the issue.”

So, one of two things is true: Either the people running the Christie campaign do plan to make property taxes a central thrust of the campaign conversation in its closing weeks … or they do not.

If they do, now would be a good time to start talking about taxes.

If they do not … perhaps they should reconsider.