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Controversial Election Day Issues Highlighted in University Discussion

Matthew Hersh

To know New Jersey is to vote in New Jersey.

A panel discussion at the Frist Campus Center on Friday attempted to educate a gathering of students about the major issues facing voters this November. Addressing everything from proposals of municipal consolidation to rising property taxes, the event, "New Jersey 101," sought to clarify issues that plague a state composed of 566 municipalities.

"Obviously, communities no longer exist on their own and it just doesn't make any sense," said Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. "We don't even know where our boundaries are anymore," she said.

Ms. Reed also lambasted the current property tax structure that is largely, she said, based on "vestiges of the past.

"We still have that tension about who should pay for what," she said, adding that New Jersey, unlike other states, has not moved away from the property tax-heavy system of financing local amenities and schools. "We got started late in collecting tax state-wide: we didn't start collecting sales tax until the late 60s, and in the 70s, the courts instituted an income tax, and we all voted to say that that income tax should be collected, but it should only go to support schools."

In this year's election, both leading gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican Douglas Forrester, are speaking out for property tax relief — a system where state monies are appropriated to people to help pay for property tax. "But that issue of reform is still on the table," Ms. Reed said.

The remainder of the event, moderated by Charles Stile of the Bergen Record, featured a panel that included Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, Asm. Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton), Cullen McAuliffe, an aide to Asw. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing), and David Knowlton, a senior policy advisor to the Forrester campaign.

When prompted by the question as to why the property tax issue has yet to be aggressively addressed by the Legislature, Mr. Baroni said the reasons were largely political: "The issue is not controversial, but the outcome could be." Mr. Baroni was one of three Republicans in the Assembly to vote for a constitutional convention that would examine ways to remove the state's financial dependence on property tax.

The problem with property taxes in New Jersey, Mr. Baroni said, is that with the exception of urban school districts (which have special constitutional protection allowing additional state funds for education), they are almost exclusively financed by property taxes.

"If we landed on a planet today, and tried to figure out a way to make sure we covered the cost of people's education, this would be the last system we would use."

The current system is also inequitable, Mr. Baroni said, pitting the "old against the young, those with children against those without kids.
"That's a crazy system."

Mr. Hughes pointed out that there are more school districts (601) than the aforementioned 566 municipalities and that the issue could be taken up at a tax convention. Mr. Hughes also addressed the idea of shared services, and how that can lessen the financial burden between municipalities in a shared region.

Mr. Knowlton, representing Mr. Forrester, endorsed his candidate's campaign ideal of a 30-percent reduction in property taxes over the next three years. "The idea is to put a stake in the ground by spending," he said.
Putting an end to corruption and the "pay-to-play" practice of assigning municipal contracts to campaign donors is a problem both gubernatorial candidates have addressed, but without offering definitive solutions, Ms. Reed said. She added that because New Jersey is not a major media market, and is blanketed by the New York and Philadelphia markets, state politics do not get the attention they deserve.

Mr. Baroni noted that while former Sen. Robert Torricelli's campaign woes were covered in local media, they did not become scandalous until New York's NBC-TV ran a special report on it. Mr. Torricelli subsequently dropped his re-election bid.

"We have strong newspapers because of our community base, but most people get their news from New York-or Philadelphia-based news," Ms. Reed said.



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