- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

ELIZABETH, N.J. (AP) - More than a dozen New Jersey towns have filed lawsuits against nonprofit hospitals seeking property tax payments, but on Friday, Gov. Chris Christie proposed a two-year freeze on payments while a commission studies the issue.

The lawsuits came after a state tax court ruled in June last year that Morristown Medical Center wasn’t entitled to an exemption as a nonprofit, which generally are not liable for property taxes.

Christie said at Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth that the judge was interpreting a 70-year-old statute that needs to be reviewed because the state’s 62 nonprofit hospitals have changed how they do business.

“We shouldn’t rely up on judges to make interpretations of 70-year-old statutes to determine the way our nonprofits operate,” Christie said during a news conference at the hospital.

The city of Elizabeth recently added Trinitas to its tax rolls, a move that the hospital is disputing. Christie says all cases in the court process will be frozen.

Christie vetoed legislation in January that would have required hospitals to pay community service fees. He called the legislation well-intentioned but rushed.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto criticized Christie’s proposal, saying the bill he vetoed had broad support. He said the issue needs to be resolved now, not in two years.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, also a Democrat, said he still believes the bill Christie rejected should have been enacted.

“The problem should not be ignored because it will continue to leave municipalities and their taxpayers paying the price for inaction and the hospitals in a continued state of uncertainty,” Sweeney said.

Christie’s proposal would set up a nine-member property tax exemption study commission and would include the state treasurer and commissioners of health, community affairs and higher education.

The exemption from property tax liability under the proposal would remain in effect until Jan. 1, 2018.

“It gives us time to come up not just with a solution, but with the right solution,” Christie said.

Friday’s news conference was the Republican governor’s second of the week. On Tuesday, Christie announced revised unemployment data that showed the state’s unemployment rate fell to 4.5 percent, the lowest level since 2007.

It also came after he campaigned on Monday for GOP presidential front runner Donald Trump in North Carolina and Florida, getting criticism for skipping the funeral of a New Jersey State trooper and instead sending the lieutenant governor.

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