Democrats will soon try for the fifth time to get Gov. Chris Christie to agree to collect more money from the state’s wealthiest residents — but this latest effort seems to be turning more personal.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said during a news conference in the State House yesterday that he’s drafting a bill that would again seek to increase the top-end income-tax rate paid by those earning more than $1 million in New Jersey.
Sweeney also took on Christie personally for not being in New Jersey more regularly this year to work on the state’s biggest problems, and he accused the governor of not telling the full truth during his regular town hall-style events.
He also said Democrats are considering raising the tax on high-earners only because Christie’s own economic policies are not growing the state’s tax base.
The tax-policy change would bring in more revenue for the chronically underfunded public-employee pension system, and it would also help Christie and lawmakers live up to promises they made to increase payments into the pension funds, Sweeney said.
The bill expected to be introduced next week would follow four previous attempts since Christie, a Republican, took office in 2010. Although all of the previous proposals were rejected by the governor, Sweeney said he’s willing to work with Christie, including adding a sunset provision to the “millionaire’s tax.”
But Sweeney – a private-sector labor official who has partnered in the past with Christie to enact several major initiatives, including a property tax cap, the pension reforms and a massive reorganization of higher education in New Jersey – didn’t just talk about the budget and tax policy during the news conference yesterday.
Instead, he went on to sharply criticize Christie for devoting too much attention to his ongoing consideration of a 2016 presidential run. In fact, Christie spent part of his day yesterday in Washington, D.C., attending a fund-raiser for a political committee tied to his exploration of a presidential campaign.
“He actually needs to be back here meeting with the legislative leadership,” Sweeney said. “He needs to be back here with a plan on what we are going to do to fix this place because you can’t fix it when you’re not here.”
“You don’t fix anything when you can’t look anybody in the eye. I get his ambitions, but he’s the governor of the state of New Jersey,” continued Sweeney, who is expected by many to run for governor when Christie’s term ends.
Sweeney also forcefully challenged several comments Christie has made both on social media and at the weekly town hall-style events the governor has been holding since introducing a $33.8 billion spending plan on Feb. 24 for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Christie, while trying to win support for the new round of employee-benefits reforms he proposed along with the new state budget, has been saying New Jersey taxpayers can simply no longer afford to fund workers’ pensions and healthcare benefits.
The governor’s plan calls for freezing the current pension system and force employees to accept less-costly healthcare options.
But Sweeney said Christie is doing so to deflect attention away from the state’s stubbornly slow job recovery coming out of the last recession.
“Last time I checked they’re paying more for their healthcare and more for their pensions than they did before,” he said. “This is about the economy.”
Sweeney said Christie’s regular criticism of the Democrats’ attempts to raise taxes on the roughly 17,000 state residents who are making more than $1 million annually is misleading.
Christie frequently points to a study released earlier this year by Phoenix International Marketing that found New Jersey lost 10,000 millionaire households last year. But Sweeney said the study referred to those with a net worth of $1 million, not those with annual earnings over $1 million.
That population, he said citing data gathered by nonpartisan legislative analysts, has actually been growing by 38 percent since 2009.
Christie has also repeatedly said the state’s top-end income-tax rate of 8.97 percent starts at $400,000, but that rate has consistently been applied only to earnings over $500,000 since 2004, with only one exception, when rates were temporarily increased for the 2009 tax year. Democrats have sought to up the top rate to 10.75 percent only on earnings over $1 million.
“We need to fix this state and instead of blaming and trying to redirect and distract people we need to focus on the economy,” Sweeney said.
“This is a state where wealthy people can live,” he said. “The people who are leaving this state are the middle class and seniors and the working poor because they can’t afford it anymore.”
Sweeney’s comments came less than 24 hours after Christie, during his monthly radio show Monday night, said he’s hoping this year to cooperate with Democratic legislative leaders, including Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson), and negotiate a budget deal.
Last year’s messy budget season ended with Christie vetoing tax hikes, as well as a Democratic proposal for more funding for the pension system, which prompted public workers to sue the Christie administration in response. That litigation remains unsettled, with arguments before the state Supreme Court scheduled for May 6.
Christie suggested during the radio show that he’s unlikely to go along with Democrats’ wishes if they want to again draw more revenue from those earning more than $1 million.
“I’ve vetoed a millionaire’s tax four times, so sometimes past is prologue, but we’ll see what happens,” Christie told radio-show host Eric Scott.
It was just last week that Christie criticized both Sweeney and Prieto for joining the ongoing litigation filed by the unions in the wake of Christie’s pension cuts.
Christie press secretary Kevin Roberts responded to Sweeney yesterday by saying it’s Sweeney who is trying to mislead the public into thinking increasing taxes on just the state’s highest earners will produce enough revenue for the larger pension contribution.
“Doing so would actually require a 29 percent income tax hike on every New Jersey family,” Roberts said.
Roberts also responded directly to Sweeney’s criticisms of Christie’s handling of the state economy.
“Increasing taxes on New Jersey families to pay for public-employee entitlement programs is a very confused way to argue for strengthening the economy,” Roberts said.