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1-21-07 Gannett article on 'property tax credit, annual cap vote due'
Asbury Park Press -Diluted reforms facing obstacles 01/21/07 GANNETT STATE BUREAU...TRENTON "Senate Democrats hope to push forward this week with the centerpieces of lawmakers' property tax reform plans a 20 percent property tax credit for most homeowners and a 4 percent cap on annual property tax increases... ...Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, said he hoped for a vote on the credit and cap bill Thursday. On Monday, he expects votes on creating a state comptroller, a plan to encourage town mergers, some pension reforms and a law requiring tougher penalties for corruption.....

Other plans linked to property taxes a new school funding formula and pension and benefit savings await action from Corzine... ...The (county-wide school district) proposal quickly lost support, as has a plan to empower county school superintendents to check education spending....

...Other Democrats said their work could not be complete without a new school funding formula. "That's the singular most important reform," said Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex..."

Property tax credit, annual cap vote due

Diluted reforms facing obstacles

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/21/07

BY JONATHAN TAMARI
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON Senate Democrats hope to push forward this week with the centerpieces of lawmakers' property tax reform plans a 20 percent property tax credit for most homeowners and a 4 percent cap on annual property tax increases.

But the tortuous reform effort still faces many obstacles and has left members of both parties frustrated with the outcome after five months of work on the issue.

After Gov. Corzine called on lawmakers last summer to "make history" and reduce New Jersey's highest-in-the-nation property taxes, several lawmakers last week spoke of the ensuing effort as a wasted opportunity that will likely fall short of its lofty goals.

"By the time all is said and done, (the proposals have) all been watered down so much that there's really nothing there.

They're nothing more than shells," said Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer.

After seeing much of his work on reforms whittled down by other lawmakers and interest groups, Sen. Robert Smith, D-Middlesex, compared his efforts to those of Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology was doomed to forever roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down.

"I went into this believing anything was possible and anything was on the table, but you can't get past those interest groups," said Smith, who co-chaired one of the four committees that spent much of last summer working on reform plans.

Aside from the tax caps, Smith said none of the remaining proposals would go far to reduce government spending and therefore have a long-term impact on taxes.

Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, said he hoped for a vote on the credit and cap bill Thursday. On Monday, he expects votes on creating a state comptroller, a plan to encourage town mergers, some pension reforms and a law requiring tougher penalties for corruption.

The Senate also is expected to vote on a resolution honoring the Rutgers University football team for its successful season.

Moving the remaining property tax measures would represent progress, Codey said.

"Absolutely, positively," he said Friday afternoon.

Support for the bills is not assured, however. Lawmakers are awaiting details on the cap plan, which has drawn criticism from mayors who worry it will force drastic cuts in local services.

It's also still unclear how the state will pay for the $2 billion credit program. Codey and Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden, were counting on government reform to help save the money needed for the credits, but many of those proposals have been scaled back.

For reforms to have an impact this year, they likely will have to be approved in time for Corzine to work them into his next budget, scheduled for a Feb. 27 introduction.

Other plans linked to property taxes a new school funding formula and pension and benefit savings await action from Corzine.

"In recent weeks it has become apparent that this process is at risk of becoming a complete failure," Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole, R-Essex, wrote in a letter.

The latest blow came after 3,000 Gloucester County residents protested a plan to try county-based administration for their schools, a proposal Smith said would save money by reducing bureaucracy. The proposal quickly lost support, as has a plan to empower county school superintendents to check education spending. School costs make up the bulk of property tax bills.

"What the citizens don't realize is they are a tremendous part of the problem," Smith said. "They want premium services at wholesale prices."

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, and Sen. John Adler, D-Camden, who co-chaired committees aimed at cutting pension costs and reforming education, also have expressed frustration as their proposals have been picked apart by labor unions, school boards and other lawmakers.

Other Democrats said their work could not be complete without a new school funding formula.

"That's the singular most important reform," said Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex.

Corzine hopes to include the plan in this year's budget, but it's unclear if the plan will be ready in time.

The state's existing formula for school funding has been ignored for years. In the last budget year, that meant the state shortchanged schools by $846 million, according to an analysis released Friday by Rutgers University professor emeritus Ernest Reock.

If that aid had gone to schools, it could have cut taxes by between 20 percent in poor school districts and 3.5 percent in wealthy areas, Reock estimated.

The latest tangle on reforms centers on changes to a plan for a state comptroller. Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-Mercer, who sponsored the bill in her house, said Friday she opposes a Senate proposal that would bar the comptroller from reviewing local land deals.

"We must ensure the amendments moving in the Senate do not turn what should be a presence into Trenton's latest 98-pound weakling," Watson Coleman said.

Citing corruption cases tied to land development, Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the latest change is "like having a watchdog with one eye and two broken legs."

The plan's Senate sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny Jr., D-Hudson, said earlier in the week the comptroller was never intended to review such deals and that a recent amendment was a clarification.

Other changes would effectively reduce the state's power to audit local governments.


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160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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