The issue of New Jersey's high property taxes and who has been most effective in controlling them has been thrust into the center of this year's campaign dialogue, potentially becoming the dominant subject for gubernatorial and legislative candidates.
The impetus was provided by a study on the news website NJSpotlight.com, purporting to show that, when the scaled-down Homestead Rebate program is factored in, the increase in net property taxes was greater in the first three years of the Christie administration than in the last three years of the Corzine administration.
The study was quickly snapped up by the media and by Democrats who viewed it as a stinging and credible rebuttal to Gov. Chris Christie's narrative that he succeeded in reining in property tax increases.
The analysis asserted that net property taxes rose nearly 19 percent in Christie's three years as governor, compared to only 6 percent in the final three years of Gov. Jon Corzine's administration. It attributed the difference to Christie's dramatic reductions in the Homestead Rebate program, which resulted in actual out-of-pocket expenditures for property taxes rising nearly $1,200 under Christie while the same net expenditures increased only $350 under Corzine.
The study noted that while the state-imposed cap on property tax rate increases combined with other cost-cutting measures at the local level slowed the percentage growth in property taxes, the increase in real-dollar spending is a truer measure of the tax burden.
The Administration, as is its custom when questioned on the issue, repeated its argument that the rate cap, the pension and health-benefits revisions and changes in binding arbitration to settle contract disputes led to average tax rate increases of less than two per cent.
The governor reacted by attacking the messenger, pointing out that the report's author had been a member of the staff of independent gubernatorial candidate Chris Daggett in 2009. Christie did not, however, take issue with the study's figures.
Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable read his lines perfectly, telling an Assembly committee the property-tax relief program was "a resounding success." He made no effort to refute the report's findings, either, suggesting instead that rebates should not be included when calculating the property-tax burden because rebates shouldn't be considered relief.
Really? Democratic and Republican governors alike have characterized the rebate as an effort to ease the property tax load ever since the program was conceived by Gov. Brendan Byrne more than 35 years ago. While politicians may engage in semantic jousting over rebates vs. reforms, homeowners staring at their property-tax bills fail to see the distinction.
The Christie administration has been aggressive in taking on property-tax relief efforts. Christie overcame intense resistance to win approval of his tax-rate cap. He developed a broad agenda - much of which still awaits legislative action - to provide local governments with methods to trim expenses. He supports shared-services agreements and opposes municipal user fees to circumvent spending restrictions.
He understands that the state does not establish, levy, collect or spend property taxes, and it is therefore deceptive to suggest that it can control them. The state's influence involves direct aid, imposing greater fiscal discipline on local governments, limiting their taxing authority and curbing wages and fringe benefits of their employees.
It is, of course, no small irony that recognizing property taxes as a uniquely local matter led to the enactment of the Homestead Rebate program in the first instance. It was the state's message to homeowners that while it could not affect property taxes, the rebate check would help them pay the bill.
Middlesex County State Sen. Barbara Buono, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee, will most assuredly make use of the comparative tax study to ramp up her argument that Christie's policies - specifically the sharp rebate reductions - have punished the middle class and the poor while offering the wealthy a pass.
With property taxes consistently ranking as the most serious issue facing New Jerseyans, Buono will have at her disposal hard numbers to offer as proof that Christie's claims of victory in the property-tax fight are more spin than substance. The refusal of the administration to rebut the study's findings opens the way for Buono to exploit the issue.
She remains the decided underdog in need of an overarching theme and readily understood issue to present a clear contrast with the incumbent.
She may have found it in the Christie-Corzine comparative study.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.