Public school funding sets the candidates apart in the races for Senate and Assembly in the 23rd District, with Republican incumbents seeking to equalize school aid.
In the Senate race, conservative Republican incumbent Michael Doherty, author of the "Fair School Funding Act," faces Democrat John Graf and Daniel Seyler, running as an independent.
The Assembly race pits incumbent Republican Assemblymen John DiMaio and Eric Peterson against Democrats Karen Carroll and Scott McDonald.
The centerpiece of Doherty's campaign is his school funding plan, which would provide an equal amount of school aid per student regardless of school district. The bill would amend the state constitution by changing the funding for so-called Abbott low income and city districts that receive more aid.
Doherty said the funding for his plan would be collected "progressively through the income tax and distributed for equal benefit for the people of the state." He claims the plan would reduce property taxes for 85 percent of all property owners.
So far, it hasn't gotten past the committee process. The plan lost in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, of which Doherty is a member, by a 9-5 party line vote.
Graf, the Democratic challenger, said that Doherty's school funding plan is "too extreme."
The plan "is an effort to fool the voters ... that the Abbott funding issue is denying their school districts the funding they deserve," said Graf, a nondenominational pastor from Bedminster.
The Abbott funding formula needs to be addressed, but Doherty's plan would harm the education of disabled, special needs and vocational students, Graf said.
Seyler, the independent candidate, supports charter schools and vouchers to improve education.
"I want to see a voucher program where each school-age child receives a voucher ticket that they may spend on the school of their choice and their parent's choice," he said.
This system would foster "a free enterprise system" where schools would compete for students, said Seyler, a school bus driver from Phillipsburg. In the Assembly race, DiMaio has been touring the state with Doherty touting the school funding plan, and filed companion legislation in the Assembly.
"Competition is a catalyst for greater ingenuity and continued improvement in any area of society, including our educational system," said DiMaio, a business owner from Hackettstown. "I also believe parents and students should have to choose where they go to school no matter what school they attend and should have all options available to them, including vouchers, charter schools, and school choice."
Peterson, an attorney from Franklin in Hunterdon County, also supports Doherty's school funding plan.
"I believe the current school aid funding formula is flawed and needs to be rewritten," he said. "The current formula is too easily manipulated without any meaningful audits and does not treat childen equally."
He contends that a new school funding formula, reducing state debt and cutting unnecessary programs would make the state more attractive to out-of-state businesses.
The Democrats running for Assembly are attacking the school issues head-on.
"New Jersey's public school system is one of the best in the nation," said Carroll, an agriculture insurance adjuster from Bound Brook. "Withdrawing money to pay for charter schools and private schools would be a mistake. Reducing money for public education is just one more blow to the middle class in New Jersey."
Carroll also supports efforts to regionalize schools and municipal governments. In addition, she favors more jobs programs and retraining for workers, providing health care for students and women and children living near the poverty level and better transportation in rural areas.
McDonald, a bridge worker and the mayor of Washington Borough in Warren County, said he would work to reduce the state's debt, find ways to cut local property taxes, and continue the fight to keep open the Sen. Garrett W. Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital in Lebanon Township. The state is in the process of closing that facility to save $9 million.
In his role as mayor of a small town, McDonald said the 2 percent tax levy cap law has had unseen consequences.
"The cap is not sustainable," he said. In its present form it would result in too many local govenment service cuts.
Reducing the state's debt and local property taxes could be keys to spur job growth, he said.
For the Republicans, Peterson said he would use budget surpluses to pay the transportation trust fund debt, and would pass new laws to drive more shared services among towns. He also called for an end to unfunded state mandates that drive up local government costs.
DiMaio and Doherty would let the market drive the state's energy policy. They do not favor more borrowing or a gas tax hike to pay for road or bridge repairs.
Doherty said the state's court decisions on affordable housing need to be overturned and has filed legislation that would "clarify that affordable housing is not a right."
According to Doherty, "the mandate that each taxpayer is to contribute to provide state subsidized affordable housing to others only makes homeownership less affordable for those who pay the bill."
Seyler, the independent candidate, is calling for a "senior freedom" tax plan that would reduce real estate assessments for each senior citizen or disabled person for 1,000 square feet of their housing area, no matter the size of their home.
The 23rd District begins at the Delaware River and covers largely rural Republican towns in Warren and Hunterdon counties, and the Senate candidates also differ on regional planning. Doherty, a patent attorney from Oxford, does not support regional planning, including in North Jersey's Highlands region.
Graf said regional planning has been beneficial in the effort to control sprawl and protect the environment. The governor's energy plan abandons years of previous work to control pollution and he supports government efforts to develop energy conservation and efficiency programs, he said.