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11-19-06 Sunday Press Articles & Commentaries
NEWS ARTICLES Posted on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006 PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER 'Trenton funding proposal riles Abbott districts' A study calls for education money to follow students' needs, not geography.

"...Lynne Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents middle-class suburban districts, said that though she was frustrated at the proposal's vagueness: "It does make sense that we have one formula for all. The downside of the Abbotts is that it has created division.

"I don't think our government wants to see Abbotts slide," she said. "I think they want to put us together so we can move ahead in a betterway."

'Answers about property tax relief proposals' GANNETT BUREAU - Posted by Asbury Park Press

'Taking an ax to property tax problem' Sunday, November 19, 2006 By JON CORZINE, OP-ED

COURIER POST EDITORIAL- Real tax relief will depend on how relentlessly and thoughtfully lawmakers fill in the details.

NEWS ARTICLES Posted on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006


PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

Trenton funding proposal riles Abbott districts
A study calls for education money to follow students' needs, not
geography. Advocates for needy schools vow a fight.

By Elisa Ung and Melanie Burney
Inquirer Staff Writers

The ink is barely dry on a proposal to change the way New Jersey funds
its schools. But the lawsuit talk has already begun.

After a three-month study of how to reduce property taxes, legislators
have recommended that education money follow the needs of each student -
not geography.

They want to scrap the Abbott designation for 31 needy districts that
now receive more than half the state's school funding. The aim is to be
fairer to suburban, middle-class districts - and accommodate poor
students in wealthier areas.

Middle-class school advocates say there are simply not enough details
for them to cheer yet.

And Abbott schools are girding for battle.

The proposal would turn back "the clock on the progress that Abbott
districts have made," said Philip E. Freeman, Camden's school board
president, who predicted legal action.

Abbott schools are not only worried that funding may decrease over time.
They also fret that the money they get won't support the smaller
classes, early-literacy programs, and other things the state now must
fund.

"You can't just lift the Abbott designation because of these reforms,"
said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center,
which has argued on behalf of the Abbott districts and their 350,000
students statewide. "The new funding formula needs to preserve and
strengthen the programs and reforms that are court-ordered,
constitutionally required, and that have been the basis for real
progress."

But legislators aren't making any promises, saying everything is up for
negotiation in the coming months.

"Our goal is to make sure we get better results for kids throughout the
state," said State Sen. John Adler (D., Camden), cochairman of the panel
that made the proposal. "I don't know whether that means we'll have an
Abbott mandate continued, expanded or modified.

"No matter what, there will be a legal challenge," Adler said. But he
said that the proposal was constitutionally sound, and that its aim "is
to give kids a thorough and efficient education, not an excessively
expensive and inadequate education."

The 31 districts were designated Abbott, or special-needs, districts
under a series of state Supreme Court rulings stemming from a 1981
lawsuit. Any changes would likely be challenged.

Legislators want to develop a formula to hand out aid based on how many
needy students live in a district, also weighing factors such as special
education.

This would replace the special category of state funding given to Abbott
districts. The state has pumped millions of dollars under court order to
ensure that its poor, mostly urban districts are able to spend at the
same level as their wealthier suburban neighbors.

Rutgers University law professor Paul Tractenberg, a founder of the
Education Law Center, said the new plan was unconstitutional. "They're
going back to the old system of top-down," he said.

Legislators say they are committed to paying for preschools not just in
current Abbott districts, but for students in all of the state's poorest
communities and all needy children in richer areas. They also propose
supporting full-day kindergarten in all districts.

Some Democratic lawmakers estimate the entire package would cost about
$700 million, at least part of which could come from the proceeds of the
recent sales-tax hike.

"This is not an attempt to take money away from Abbott districts," state
Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy said in an interview. "We're
committed to ensuring that the Abbott districts have the resources they
need."

Davy said the state merely wanted to find a way to distribute equity to
school districts in a "fairer formula."

But inside Abbott districts, there is concern that the work to narrow
the achievement gap would become harder. South Jersey has nine Abbott
districts, including Camden, Burlington City, Gloucester City and
Pemberton Township.

Legislators have promised that for next year, no district would receive
less aid. But over time, there could be a drop.

Lynda Lathrop, a spokeswoman for Gloucester City schools, said she
feared that if the state did not fund mandates such as
community-outreach counselors, the district would have to try to meet
them on its own with less money.

"It could become: Do you hire a community-outreach counselor to work
with the children, or do you hire another first-grade teacher to reduce
the class size?" Lathrop said.

Interim Pemberton Township Superintendent John Mazzei said the district
had hired staff and redesigned educational programs based on Abbott
mandates. But without the additional state funding, those could be in
jeopardy, he said.

"The state is barking up the wrong tree. They don't want to fix this
funding the right way," Mazzei said. "They just need to find more
money."

Camden activist Lola Moore, one of the original Abbott plaintiffs, said
she disagreed with having the money follow the children because the
children in the poorer, mostly urban Abbott districts face more severe
problems of a different nature.

Moore said the districts "have not made the kind of gains... that many
of us would have liked with the new infusion of money," but "I don't
know whether enough time has passed to give the districts a chance to
show some marked improvement."

The 1,500-student Salem City schools became an Abbott district two years
ago, and Superintendent Margaret Nicolosi said it had begun to benefit
from the additional state funding that had paid for reading and math
coaches and launched new programs such as Every Day Math.

"That would be gone. We would have to go back to bare bones," Nicolosi
said.

Lynne Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which
represents middle-class suburban districts, said that though she was
frustrated at the proposal's vagueness: "It does make sense that we have
one formula for all. The downside of the Abbotts is that it has created
division.

"I don't think our government wants to see Abbotts slide," she said. "I
think they want to put us together so we can move ahead in a better
way." Contact staff writer Elisa Ung at 609-989-9016 or
eung@phillynews.com.



C 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights
Reserved. http://www.philly.com

 

Answers about property tax relief proposals

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 11/19/06

BY JONATHAN TAMARI
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON Lawmakers rolled out 98 recommendations for reining in property taxes last week, but many questions remain about how the proposals will affect homeowners and public schools.

The most far-reaching elements of the plan would offer 20 percent property tax credits to some homeowners, overhaul the way the state pays for schools and cap annual property tax increases. Other pieces of the plan could lead to town and school mergers.

Here are some answers about the proposals and what happens next.

Q: Who would get the 20 percent tax credits?

A: It's still up for debate and negotiation. There will almost certainly be a sliding scale based on income 20 percent would be the maximum credit, though some homeowners would get less. People with higher incomes would see less relief, but the thresholds are still being worked out. The level of credits depends mostly on much money can be freed up for the credits now and into future years.

Republicans argue that the 20 percent credits should go to everyone, regardless of income.

Q: Would property taxes go down?

A: It appears unlikely, although many of the plans are aimed at streamlining government. The credits would help you pay the bill, but the levy would probably still grow. Lawmakers want to impose a cap that would limit how fast taxes rise each year. Gov. Jon S. Corzine has called for a 4 percent cap. Property taxes currently are rising by around 6 to 7 percent each year, as a statewide average.

Q: Doesn't the state have budget problems? How would they pay for those tax credits?

A: When officials raised the sales tax earlier this year, they set aside half of the increase about $700 million for property tax relief.

Officials are also considering selling or leasing a major state asset, such as the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway or state lottery, for a cash infusion that would help fund property tax relief. It's unclear at this point if those options will be enough to create a long-lasting credit program.

Q: Why does it matter what money they use?

A: If funding decreases, so could the credits.

Q: This sounds vaguely familiar ...

A: Past property tax relief plans were large at first but got trimmed as the state ran into financial trouble.

Q: How would this affect the rebate checks we already get?

A: The rebate program would be scrapped, with the money put back into the credits. Senior citizens would have the option of still getting the checks instead of the rebate.

A: What if my senior rebate is larger than 20 percent of my tax bill?

Q: Seniors will not see a decrease in property tax relief and could see an increase, if 20 percent is larger than the rebate they already get.

A: What about renters?

Q: Lawmakers called for leaving the tenant rebates flat. Corzine said tenants should share in the increased relief.

Q: A whole special committee for the property tax session was focused on schools. What does that have to do with property taxes?

A: School costs make up the bulk of property tax bills. Out of the $20 billion in property taxes collected in 2005, 55 percent went to schools. School officials say that's because the state doesn't pay its fair share of education costs, leaving the burden on local districts, which raise money through the property tax.

Q: So what would change?

A: Officials hope to put $700 million to $1 billion more in state money raised through other taxes and fees toward education aid. If spending doesn't increase, that money would offset some property taxes.

Lawmakers also hope a new method will dole out state aid more fairly to more schools. The aid would be based on a community's wealth. Extra support would be given based on districts' count of low-income children or pupils with extra needs, such as disabilities or limited English skills. All districts would receive a minimum amount of aid. It's unclear still what areas would benefit the most.

Q: What about districts that depend on the state for support?

A: No schools would lose money in the first year of reforms, although they could see decreases over time.

Q: How do we know schools would spend all this extra money wisely?

A: Under the plan any school budget that hikes taxes 4 percent or less would not require a public vote. If the school board wants to raise taxes above the cap, however, they would need support from 60 percent of the public. The vote would also have to have 20 percent voter participation, which may be a tall task since most school board votes generate minimal interest.

The school budget votes would stay in April. Elections for school board members would be moved to November, when voter interest is generally higher.

Q: What happens next in Trenton?

A: The most sticky issues still need to be hammered out by Corzine, his administration and the Legislature.

And each aspect of the plan faces opposition. Labor unions are promising to fight benefit cuts, and education groups are anxiously awaiting the school funding formula. Towns are gearing up to fight forced mergers.

Despite the likely opposition, however, many pieces could move quickly through the Legislature and may be approved by the end of the year.

Jonathan Tamari: jtamari@gannett.com

Taking an ax to property tax problem
Sunday, November 19, 2006





When I think about how to tackle the monumental issue of property taxes, I'm reminded of something Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano said to his team after a tough loss. He told them they were in a bad spot, in the middle of the forest, and that they should get an ax and just start choppin'.

Throughout the course of the special session on property taxes, those of us in Trenton have been choppin' away, and though real progress has been made, we've got more choppin' to do.

The reports issued by the joint committees this week outline nearly 100 ambitious steps the state can take to ease the property tax burden. These steps do not represent the completion of our task; rather, they mark the beginning of the next phase of our efforts.

Those recommendations must be analyzed by the administration, the Legislature and the public. We must fill in the blanks, debate the details, consider other ideas and arrive at a package of legislation that provides real and sustainable relief and reform of the property tax system.

To do that, we will have to overcome the inertia of the status quo. Bold new ideas will always meet resistance.It will take continued strong leadership to persuade everyone to put our individual interests aside in pursuit of a greater good.

We must also act in a holistic manner. New Jersey history is littered with the remains of piecemeal property tax reform efforts, and the public will be rightfully leery of anything short of a comprehensive package of reform and relief.

I am pleased with the work done by the joint committees. Senate President Richard Codey, Speaker Joseph Roberts and the Legislature have demonstrated a willingness to address many of the topics that demand reform, and I am agreement with them in many areas.

Relief now

I support the goal of reducing up to 20 percent of the property tax bill for a substantial number of primary homeowners because I recognize that New Jerseyans need relief now.

It should come as no surprise that our ability to provide that relief depends upon our ability to pay for it. Immediate relief must be accompanied by a comprehensive reform package and a plan to match that relief to recurring revenues.

What I said about our state's budget holds true for property taxes: I cannot support a short-term, one-shot fix, and we must match recurring revenues to recurring expenditures.

Fairer school funding formula

Our obligations in this area are substantial. In addition to the funding for immediate relief, we must provide additional funding for a fairer school-funding formula, for a fund to incentivize consolidation at all levels of government, and for a sustainable funding solution for pension and benefits packages.

The pool of funds to draw from is limited. We know we have dedicated sales tax revenue, funds from existing rebate programs and expected economic growth available. In addition, we could increase available funds for property tax relief by reducing state expenses through entering into public/private partnerships, implementation of structural reforms to government operations, collective bargaining and better management and oversight.

To ensure that any relief we provide is meaningful and sustainable, we must consider bold, broad-based reforms to the way our state does business. While I support the work of the joint committees, I believe more reforms are needed to tackle this problem.

First, any commission set up to study school or government consolidation must be held accountable for achieving results in a timely manner. Funding must be provided to incentivize consolidation and to cover the upfront costs towns face in taking steps to consolidate, which will yield savings in the long run.

Second, I believe that we must cap property tax growth at 4 percent per year. I have proposed that this 4 percent cap, which could be phased in over time, would apply to any entity that raises property tax revenue and would sunset after five years.

Third, I firmly believe that we need an independent, fully staffed statewide comptroller to provide additional oversight to governmental operations. No $31 billion company in the world would operate without a consistent, independent auditing presence, and New Jersey cannot afford to either.

Calculated risks

My time in politics and the business world has taught me the value of taking calculated risks in the service of bold ideas, and bold action is what the public demands and deserves.

We have worked together, all branches of government, both parties, to get to the point where we are now, and we agree on much. But if we stop here, if we heed the voices of the status quo, we will have missed a truly historic opportunity.

All of us must act boldly and courageously with the public interest at the center of our efforts. You, the public, must hold us accountable for delivering real reform to an antiquated system.

- Jon Corzine is governor of New Jersey.

Legislators offer promising framework for reform

 

 

MORE ON THE WEB

  Legislative committee reports on tax reform

KEY POINTS
Property-tax credit of up to 20 percent applied directly to homeowners' local tax bill. The credit would replace rebate checks mailed to property owners. Seniors would continue to receive $1,200 checks.

Limits on annual school spending and caps on school taxes.

A ban on dual-office holding, but current double-dippers get to keep their multiple elective positions.

An increase in state spending for education in some areas, such as preschool and in middle-class public school districts.

Reduced benefits for future state workers; convicted public officials would be barred from receiving state pensions.

Creation of a commission to recommend consolidation of municipalities; state guidance on sharing local services.

Legislators and Gov. Jon Corzine expect to approve changes by year's end.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

 

Real tax relief will depend on how relentlessly and thoughtfully lawmakers fill in the details.

The four legislative committees charged with tackling tax reform made their widely anticipated recommendations on Wednesday. Yet, the suggestions were so broadly drawn, it will require months more of legislative deliberation to fill in the details. Then, long overburdened state taxpayers might finally learn how the reforms will affect their wallets.

Amid promising efforts to reduce property-tax bills, there are three things that stick out as obstacles to systemic reform.

The first and most critical is the estimated $1 billion to $3 billion needed to deliver on proposed property-tax cuts, which will largely come in the form of tax credits and additional state aid for public education, particularly help for middle-class schools. Where will legislators get the money?

Where's the money

Democratic state leaders said they expect to receive $700 million for tax reform from the 1 percent increase in the state sales tax. Another $330 million now spent to provide property-tax rebates will be used to help pay for the proposed tax-relief credit that would be applied directly to tax bills.

It still is unclear how the Legislature will increase school aid by $1 billion.

Senate President Richard Codey, D-West Orange, has proposed selling state assets, such as the New Jersey Turnpike. Such one-shot revenue methods do not usually result in a renewable funding source. But if sale proceeds are used to pay down state debt, as Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Camden, proposes, it could provide new money for other spending priorities.

But Gov. Jon Corzine should be discouraged from turning some state highways into toll roads. Even if the roads selected would be heavily used by out-of-staters, it would still mean another hand in New Jerseyans' pockets. Lawmakers should not support any plan that gives with one hand and takes with the other.

On that thought, we acknowledge what some Courier-Post readers have recently pointed out, that a 20 percent property-tax credit for most homeowners would amount to about $1,200 a year. The average New Jersey homeowner now pays $6,000 a year in property taxes, twice the national average. The proposed tax credit is significantly below the 50 percent cut many readers have said they want. But it also is a step up from the approximately $300 rebate most homeowners, except seniors, receive. And, importantly, a 20 percent credit could be more realistically sustained.

Legislators can and often do promise the sky. But it is what they can actually deliver, year in and year out, that matters. On Thursday, Corzine questioned how the state could even afford to sustain a 20 percent property-tax credit, given available funds. We encourage Roberts, Codey and other lawmakers to make it happen.

No privileged grandfathers

Legislators who studied public employee benefits also took aim at some of the generous benefit rules, pension tacking and dual-office holding that roils many taxpayers. While the legislators have made tough decisions to cut back benefits for new state workers, committee members couldn't bring themselves to stop their colleagues and friends from double-dipping.

A ban on holding two elective offices would shamefully allow current practitioners of this greedy tradition to continue. No dual-office holder should receive grandfather status. Instead, when the office holder comes up for re-election, he or she should be required to seek only one office.

Dual-office holding can lead to countless conflicts of interests as well as put a strain on local payrolls with unnecessary jobs or higher-than-warranted salaries.

Need workers' support

A third and significant obstacle will be getting state workers and their unions to go along with cutting benefits. State benefits should be reformed to something more affordable for taxpayers. But changes, such as employee contributions to health-care plans, should be graduated so lowly salaried career employees won't face significant cuts in pay. Fairness will help sell these proposals.

But lawmakers should brace for union opposition to changing these benefits, among the most generous for public employees in the nation. Unions also must recognize that New Jersey's crushing tax burden means changes must be made.

Most of what legislators have proposed is reasonable and long overdue: Increasing the retirement age from 55 to 62; eliminating pensions for part-time legislators and other government workers and barring pensions for convicted public officials.

With the 98 recommendations from the four legislative committees, state lawmakers have a framework for substantive reform. Whether they actually deliver relief to taxpayers will depend on how carefully they flush out the details. Taxpayers have been promised relief in the past by lawmakers. Legislators better deliver it this time.

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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