It’s crunch time for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The Republican newcomer won a surprise victory last year over incumbent Democrat Jon S. Corzine in a state where President Obama enjoyed a 15-point edge. It was Mr. Christie’s signature campaign issue, tax reform, that brought him to the statehouse. Now the former U.S. Attorney has less than a month left to get his proposed constitutional amendment limiting property taxes onto the November ballot.
Garden State voters embraced his reform message because, according to the Tax Foundation, they face the single highest burden imposed in the nation - handing over, on average, 11.8 percent of their annual income to state and local governments. Unless something is done, that burden will continue to grow. From 1980 to 2007, New Jersey’s property tax collections climbed 102 percent in constant dollar terms, while the national average tax burden increased 68 percent. This level of taxation has created a hostile climate for both residents and businesses.
“It is a tax that is driving people from the state of New Jersey and we have to stop it,” Mr. Christie explained in a speech Tuesday. “We have to stop it permanently, and we can no longer count on the politicians to fix the problem because both parties have failed us in that regard.”
Mr. Christie is staking his reputation on his “Cap 2.5” proposal that would prohibit lawmakers from hiking property taxes beyond 2.5 percent annually, unless the voters say otherwise. While calling for tax cuts is perhaps an easy and populist thing to do, Mr. Christie is not shying away from the more difficult and important task: reining in spending.
New Jersey local government expenditures, currently about $54 billion, continue to spiral out of control as localities are forced to coddle the public sector unions. To address this, Mr. Christie has proposed what he calls a “tool kit” consisting of legislation that would reform arbitration procedures, the civil service and their pension programs. Salaries and benefits represent the largest component of local spending.
Naturally, public sector union members don’t want to see their big pay raises, gold-plated health care and plush pension packages disappear. With $98 million in dues collected from union members each year, the New Jersey Education Association has not been afraid to throw money around to fight anyone promising change. They suggest that asking public employees to make even a small contribution toward their health care and other benefits would hurt children. Mr. Christie counters that the unions are the ones who have consigned kids to a failing bureaucracy.
“They are trapped by a selfish, self-interested, greedy school union that cares more about putting more money in their own pocket and the pockets of members than they care about educating our most vulnerable and needy children,” Mr. Christie said last month at an event promoting school choice.
Most politicians are afraid to speak so bluntly about the systemic problems facing government at all levels. That makes Mr. Christie’s candor all the more refreshing. The Garden State’s chief executive is teaching an important lesson in spending reform. It is one that the nation’s other governors need to learn.