- Associated Press - Saturday, April 15, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey taxpayers will be filing their taxes this year in the midst of pitched primary fights to succeed Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

Tax Day on Tuesday comes just as voters are expected to get a closer look at the personal financial information of the Democratic and Republican candidates who are vying to become one of the country’s most powerful chief executives, with the power to appoint prosecutors, judges, Cabinet officers and a host of other officials. New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states with governor’s races this year.

New Jersey election officials are scheduled to release the candidates’ personal financial information Monday.

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THE ISSUE



Taxes were named as the most important issue for voters this year in a Quinnipiac University poll last month. The poll surveyed 1,098 registered voters in March with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. It didn’t break down which taxes in particular matter most, but context shows more of the picture. New Jersey is widely known for its highest-in-the-nation property taxes, which are estimated by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Tax Foundation to carry a 2.38 percent effective rate.

The state’s income, sales and corporate taxes are the lifeblood of New Jersey’s roughly $35 billion budget, which the next governor will inherit. The Tax Foundation finds that New Jersey’s top marginal income tax rate and corporate taxes are among the highest in the country. Its sales tax is in the middle of the pack.

The next governor will also inherit changing tax policy in several areas: the sales tax is scheduled to dip from 6.875 percent to 6.625 percent Jan. 1. The state’s estate tax is also scheduled to be phased and retirement income tax exclusions will rise through 2020. The changes are expected to reduce state revenues, but Christie and supporters say they could also spur economic activity.

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CANDIDATE POSITITIONS AND PROMISES

Democratic candidates generally have backed increasing income tax rates on higher earners while Republicans have called for lower rates on businesses. But there are differences and even overlap on cutting property taxes. For example, Democrats and Republicans agree on reducing overlapping local services like police and fire. There is also agreement on restoring tax credits for seniors that have been frozen.

Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy has called for raising income taxes on millionaires, calling for the 10.75 percent that former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine temporarily increase rates to during a budget crunch. To lower property taxes he calls for funding a court-mandated formula that he argues would lower property taxes but he doesn’t explain how to pay for funding the formula.

Democrat Jim Johnson has a detailed plan on property taxes, including passing a constitutional amendment to required commercial properties to pay higher rates than residential owners.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski and state Sen. Ray Lesniak, both Democrats, have both also backed increasing taxes on millionaires. Wisniewski would restore the estate tax.

Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has said in February she planned to release a fuller tax plan soon. Her website calls for lowering property taxes but has few specifics except saying the school funding formula should be reformed.

GOP Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli laid out a 10-point plan on taxes that includes ending taxes on gains from the sale of primary or secondary homes, increasing the retirement income exclusion and ending the inheritance tax. Unlike other Christie he backed for increasing taxes on income over $750,000 as a way to get Democratic support for other revenue-reducing initiatives.

Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers is calling for a repeal of the 23-cent gas tax hike that Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature enacted last year as part of a deal to fund transportation while also cutting sales, estate and retirement taxes.

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WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

The issue falls into well-worn ideological tracks: Progressive budget experts in the state argue for higher taxes and undoing the estate tax cuts. Conservatives argue it’s time for deeper tax cuts than the Legislature has any appetite for. New Jersey’s economic performance has lagged the national picture since the recession, but is picking up its pace, with the unemployment rate falling below the national level.

At the same time the state’s credit rating has suffered in large part because of the state’s large unfunded pension liability, which is supported by taxpayers. Voters tend to want their taxes cut while they support hikes on those defined as “wealthy,” said Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor Peter Woolley. At the same time they don’t want to pay for services they don’t use, he said.

“If you drive an electric car, raising the gas tax seems like a good idea. … If you don’t have children in school, you are more likely to think teachers are paid too much. This is the way of the world.”

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This is the fifth in a weekly series that will look at issues facing New Jersey ahead of the June 6 primary. The general election is Nov. 7.

Follow Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini.

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