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Governor’s Veto Keeps ‘Real’ Property Tax Totals Out of the Public Eye

Christie overrides measure that would have restored impact of drastic reduction in Homestead tax-relief program

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Overshadowed by Gov. Chris Christie’s actions on several higher-profile pieces of legislation earlier this week was his rejection of a measure that would have required the state to include net property taxes after the Homestead property tax relief when it compares annual taxes online.

The Christie administration had stopped including this information in its comparative tax information, helping to conceal what was, in effect, an increase in the property tax because of drastic cuts in the Homestead program.

When the Homestead property tax relief figures were included, the numbers showed that net average property taxes for Homestead recipients had actually increased more under Christie in some years than before his administration.

When this was discovered and reported by NJ Spotlight last year, the Democratic Legislature passed a measure to correct it. That measure was what Christie conditionally earlier this week. Christie said the way his administration reported the tax burden was more accurate.

But the conditional veto means the net property tax data will remain hidden, though bill sponsors say they are eager to reintroduce the measure in a new legislative session that begins next year or might even mount an override attempt before the current session runs out in January.

Christie’s decision to remove the town-by-town net property tax data from reports that are posted online annually by the state Department of Community Affairs came last year just as the governor was laying the groundwork for his bid for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination.

Rising property tax bills have long been a top concern for New Jersey voters. Christie, who signed into law a 2 percent cap on local property tax increases in 2010, has tried to make the case that his efforts have helped to ease the burden on the state’s homeowners.

Higher tax bills

Yet for many homeowners, a reduction in funding for the Homestead program has meant they are paying higher net property tax bills even as the 2 percent cap has helped to slow the rate of growth in those bills.

That’s because Homestead rebate checks were worth $1,300 for seniors and $800 for other qualified homeowners before Christie took office in early 2010. But now the relief, which comes in the form of a direct tax credit, is worth roughly half those amounts, on average, thanks to the reduced funding.

And that cut in relief for the Homestead program’s roughly 700,000 recipients has come as average New Jersey property tax bills have continued to go up, rising from $7,576 in 2010 to $8,161 last year.

Department of Community Affairs officials have maintained that it no longer makes sense to detail the net property tax burden for Homestead recipients because fewer homeowners qualify for the relief program under income-limit reductions started by former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and subsequently followed by Christie. Homeowners making up to $250,000 annually once qualified for Homestead relief, but the program is now restricted to seniors and disabled residents making up to $150,000 annually and other homeowners making up to $75,000.

Real impact of Homestead cuts

But Democratic lawmakers disagreed, introducing and advancing legislation that sought to reinsert into the annual property tax reports a column listing net property tax bills for the remaining Homestead recipients in every municipality.

Christie, in a statement attached to Monday’s conditional veto, said restoring the information would be misleading because not every resident qualifies for the Homestead relief.

“Rather than confusing taxpayers, the state should provide relevant and sound information,” Christie wrote in the conditional veto.

His statement went on to recommend that lawmakers require disclosure of information related to other state property tax relief programs, including property tax deductions for seniors and veterans. Information detailing municipal spending should also be added, he said.

“By including as much statistically accurate information as possible, the State can provide the sort of real transparency its citizens deserve,” Christie wrote.

But Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) countered that the issue is about transparency, which is something Christie stressed before taking office.

“Homeowners, municipal officials and the public have a right to know the facts and figures that influence their property taxes,” said Sarlo, a prime sponsor of the bill to reinsert the net property tax data. “This information shouldn’t have been removed from the public website.”

And Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) said the governor doesn’t need the Legislature’s permission to begin including in the annual property tax reports all of the information that he recommended in the conditional veto.

“He can make that change right now on the website,” Singleton said. Singleton said he plans to reintroduce the bill in the next legislative session, which begins early next year. But he also wouldn’t rule out an override effort before the current session ends, saying he would discuss the issue soon with Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson).

Christie announced the conditional veto on a day when he took action on dozens of other bills, including a measure seeking to expand voting accessibility and a package of legislation intended to help Atlantic City navigate ongoing economic problems. .

The backlog of Assembly bills requiring action had been created over the summer after lawmakers rushed to approve legislation in late June before taking a long break in the run-up to last week’s statewide Assembly elections. A quorum held in the Assembly on Monday triggered a deadline for gubernatorial action on the bills that’s spelled out in the state constitution.

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