NJ Election 2020: Ballot question asks voters if they want to extend property-tax relief for military veterans

There are two parts to Public Question No. 2. Here are the details, who would benefit and what it could cost
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/ NJ Governor’s Office)
Gov. Phil Murphy spoke at the Department of Military and Veteran’s affairs’ Memorial Day ceremony in Wrightstown, May 25, 2020.

Editor’s note: NJ Spotlight News plans a look at each of the three ballot questions before New Jersey votes in November. This is the first. We will have stories on ballot questions for legalizing marijuana and drawing the legislative map in the coming weeks.

One of the ballot questions that New Jersey voters are being asked to decide this year is whether the state Constitution should be amended to expand tax breaks to military veterans and their surviving spouses as property-tax relief.

What’s listed on ballots as Public Question No. 2 asks voters to decide two different, but related, policy issues.

Answering “yes” on your ballot will mean agreeing to write each of the proposed policy changes into the state Constitution. Answering “no” means disagreeing with at least one of the proposals.

First part

The first part of the public question asks whether a property-tax deduction the state currently offers its wartime veterans who own a home should be expanded to include all honorably discharged veterans, even if they didn’t serve during wartime.

The value of the deduction is $250, and surviving spouses can also qualify for the tax break..

The proposed expansion of who can qualify for the tax break would cost between $13.6 million and $12.4 million annually over the first three years, according to a fiscal estimate prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. That would be added to a state budget that runs roughly $40 billion each year.

That cost estimate is based on an OLS assumption that there are more than 50,000 “peacetime” veterans who would qualify for the deduction for the 2020 tax year if voters approve the proposed program expansion. The annual deductions are funded with proceeds from the state income tax, Trenton’s largest source of revenue.

Meanwhile, according to the OLS, municipal governments that collect property taxes in New Jersey could see a small uptick in revenues because the state is required to provide them with a $5 administrative reimbursement for each qualified veteran.

Second part

The second part of Public Question No. 2 would expand eligibility for a full property-tax exemption that the state currently offers to disabled wartime veterans and their surviving spouses. The proposed expansion would let disabled veterans who were honorably discharged from the military but did not serve during wartime, and their surviving spouses, qualify for the exemption.

The OLS has estimated more than 4,000 New Jersey “peacetime” veterans would qualify for the exemption if voters approved. Based on current property-tax bills, the projected statewide cost of the expansion would be $38 million, according to the OLS. It is further estimated that that cost would simply be absorbed by other property owners in each community where new exemptions are claimed under the proposed expansion.

Property-tax breaks for New Jersey’s veterans were first written into the state Constitution a few years after World War II ended in the 1940s. Because they are enshrined in the Constitution, even minimal alterations must be approved by voters in a statewide election.

To get on this year’s ballot, both programmatic changes proposed in Public Question No. 2 had to win the support of both houses of the state Legislature. Lawmakers had no problem overcoming that hurdle; a formal resolution seeking to put the issue before voters won unanimous support earlier this year from both Republicans and Democrats..

Supporters say it’s a matter of fairness

Sponsors of the ballot question have portrayed the issue as a matter of fairness and a way to honor sacrifices made by all veterans, whether they served during times of war or not, and whether or not their disabilities were suffered during wartime.

This year marks the second straight year that New Jersey voters are being asked to consider making changes to one of the state tax-break programs offered to veterans.

Last year, voters easily approved a question seeking to expand eligibility for the $250 property-tax deduction — currently provided to war veterans — to those who no longer own homes and now live in senior facilities known as continuing care retirement communities. That ballot question was approved by three out of every four voters who weighed in, according to results compiled by the state Division of Elections.