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State Assembly Targets Governor’s Suppression of Rebate Data

Legislation would require Christie administration to publish town-by-town data on net property taxes it removed from state’s website

singleton
Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington).

Responding to the Christie administration’s controversial decision to delete town-by-town information on property tax rebates that had been published on the state’s website for 15 years, the state Assembly voted overwhelmingly yesterday to require the state to resume posting data that would show how much net property taxes grow each year.

“Hiding or deleting vital property tax information is not the right way to govern,” Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), the bill’s prime sponsor, said after the 72-1 vote. “The public deserves the right to all relevant information, and this bill will help to inform the public at large, and local property taxpayers individually, about the components of their property tax bills, and to illustrate to the public that local spending decisions directly affect local property taxes.”

Passage of the bill requiring the publication of full property tax rebate information is part of an ongoing battle between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the Christie administration over the suppression of previously available public information on state revenue projections and other data that is regarded as damaging to Gov. Chris Christie’s political narrative.

NJ Spotlight first used state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) data in 2012 to calculate increases in net property taxes (property taxes minus rebates) under Christie. But it was a 2013 story that showed net property taxes had increased 18.6 percent in Christie’s first three years, compared to just 6 percent under Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, that really infuriated the GOP governor, who was in the middle of a victorious reelection campaign.

Last spring, the Christie administration published its Property Tax Tables for the first time without any rebate numbers to prevent reporters from calculating net property tax increases. When NJ Spotlight used DCA’s 2012 statewide average rebate numbers -- which would have been the same as 2013 -- to compare net property tax increases under Christie to Corzine, the Christie administration went into its database and deleted all of its rebate and net property tax data from 2008 to 2012, including the last two years of data from the Corzine administration.

The decision last April to suppress the property tax rebate information was criticized by Jennifer Kim, state director for the New Jersey Public Information Research Group, which had just published a study showing that the state ranked 30th in the nation in government transparency, by the New Jersey Watchdog public advocacy group, and by newspaper editorial writers.

Yesterday’s legislation, which now goes to the Senate for consideration, was introduced by Singleton and by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) in response to the Christie administration’s action.

“Open and honest government is paramount,” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), another of the bill’s sponsors, said yesterday “It’s unacceptable for the administration to try to hide information that reflects poorly on its own decisions and storylines. The more information provided, the better it is for taxpayers.”

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) said publication of net property tax figures would “help local property taxpayers compare how well their local units of government are doing against local units in other parts of the state. Just as importantly, it would force the executive branch to stand behind their decisions on property tax relief, whether it’s good news or bad news.”

Yesterday’s Assembly vote comes just three weeks after the Treasury Department announced that its monthly revenue reports -- required by an executive order signed by Christie, who criticized previous administrations for “inadequate fiscal transparency” -- would no longer include data showing whether state tax collections were meeting monthly revenue projections.

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) said the missing information is vital because the Christie administration has come up short three years in a row on its revenue projections, forcing a series of midyear budget cuts.

Yesterday’s near-unanimous Assembly vote on the property tax rebate data is no guarantee that the information will eventually be made accessible, even if the Senate follows suit by similar numbers.

The Assembly voted unanimously for a previous Singleton bill that would have required the annual State Debt Report, which is submitted to the Capital Budgeting and Planning Commission, to include a detailed analysis of the state’s ability to afford an increase in its overall debt, and recommendations on the affordability of any such an increase.

Debt service now eats up 10.8 percent of the state budget, and Christie listed the rise in debt -- along with pension and retiree healthcare costs -- as one of three long-term threats to the state’s fiscal stability during his State of the State speech last January. But Christie vetoed the Singleton bill, and yesterday Assembly Republicans who had previously voted for the measure refused to support an override of the governor’s veto.

“This bill would have little cost, if any, to the state and would simply require the executive branch to report information that they already collect in the annual State Debt Report,” Singleton said. “We can’t continue to bury our head in the sand. This may not be information we want to hear, but it’s information we need to hear.

“I’m disappointed that Assembly Republicans have changed their mind and no longer feel the need to gain a concise picture of our long-term debt load,” he concluded.

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