Will Cap 2.0 Make School Budget Votes Obsolete?

Politicians on both side of the aisle question the need for school budget votes -- as long as the budget stays within the 2 percent cap

Following the Assembly’s overwhelming vote yesterday, Gov. Chris Christie is expected today to sign into law a new 2 percent cap on school, local and county property taxes.

Under the cap, some items would be exempted like health care and pension costs. Budgets that otherwise exceed the cap would need approval of the voters.

But for the likely vast majority of budgets that fall within the cap — for example, a 1.5 percent increase — there is growing sentiment among lawmakers that there should be no votes at all.

“Honestly, I think if you stay underneath the cap, you should be rewarded by not having a vote,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), after his chamber approved the cap last week.

Unwritten Law

None of this is written into bills as yet, let alone law, but Christie has voiced general support for such a move over the last several months, and Sweeney leads several prominent Democrats who have done so in the last week.

“There’s a flaw in the process that we need to figure out,” said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), the Assembly majority leader. “But I’m a big believer that you should be rewarded if you are below cap, a big believer.”

New Jersey’s school budget votes have been around since the turn of the last century, a holdover from an agrarian culture in which people were given a say on what was then the largest public expense by far.

Taking place now every April in nearly 600 school districts, the annual rite of spring has been controversial, to say the least. Only a small fraction of people actually vote any more — the average turnout is about 15 percent — and some question the significance when many budgets still see little change, regardless of the votes.

Rethinking the Calendar

Sweeney said any change in the election law would likely be in this summer’s deliberations of Christie’s so-called toolkit of financial and collective bargaining reforms. Among those bills is one that would move school board elections to November, a bill that would likely include a change in budget votes as well, they said.

Still, several details are far from resolved, and that has led to some confusion to how — and if — the scheme would work. For instance, would local levies that go up more than 2 percent due to health care and pension costs also be exempted from a vote?

Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), chairman of the Assembly’s influential budget committee, yesterday said he has long supported eliminating the vote for those under cap — as long as there is ultimately real discussion to not just capping property taxes but reducing them.

“We’ve argued for years for an incentive to keep people under the cap,” Greenwald said. “Why waste the dollars on the votes. I think the public would stomach stabilization of the property taxes if it was 1.8 or 1.9 percent.

“But I think they would only do that,” he continued, “if they are hearing people like myself say this is really nipping at the edges, we need to have a real discussion of property tax reduction.”

Revising Election Procedures

Local district leaders, already beaten up by state funding cuts and left uncertain by ever-changing rules of what would be included or excluded from the caps, are not yet counting on any change in election procedures, a process in which they invest many hours every year.

“We’ve been fooled before,” said Robert Copeland, superintendent of Pisctaway schools.

The votes have also gained heightened attention — and political capital — in the last several years, especially this year when nearly 60 percent of budgets were rejected. It was a record rejection rate that Christie seized as a mandate for his property tax reforms.

How many districts would request override votes is, of course, speculation. This year, only 110 of nearly 600 districts proposed levy increases of 2 percent or less, but that does not factor in those that went higher due to health care or pension costs. Still, just six presented “second questions” to exceed the current 4 percent cap, and all were rejected.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has combed the various iterations of pending bills for more information about how future budget votes might work, after several different reports pointed to Christie’s support for ending the annual rite for every district.

“We made several calls over there,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the school boards group. “We never really got a clear answer.”

“But we’ve supported this for a long time,” he said. “With a strong cap in place and [the state’s] county superintendent reviewing budgets, it really diminishes the importance of having these votes.”

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