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Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Claudine Smith of Atlantic City High School is The Press Female track Athlete of the Year. June 18, 2019 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)

State budget passes Legislature with no millionaire's tax

TRENTON — The state Legislature passed a $38.75 billion state budget Thursday, which differs significantly from Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget — and without the governor’s millionaire’s tax.

The question now is whether Murphy will sign it, and how much he will use the line-item veto he threatened to use in a letter to legislators Wednesday.

Democrat Murphy believes the legislators — dominated by his own party — did not adequately fund the budget, in part because they didn’t include an increase on income taxes for those making more than $1 million.

Murphy wants the top marginal rate to go from 8.97% to 10.75%. He had estimated the hike would bring in nearly a half-billion dollars, which he said he’d use in part to finance a $125 tax credit to defray residents’ sky-high property taxes. He said the funding would also help stabilize the budget in future years so the state could meet its pension and education funding requirements.

Murphy threatens line-item veto on NJ budget; Sweeney won't relent

Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday threatened to use line-item vetoes to cut spending in the Legislature’s proposed $38.75 billion budget, saying lawmakers are overestimating revenues, as the deadline for the state to reach a balanced budget is less than two weeks away.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said there is no need to impose a greater burden on taxpayers in a year with revenues strong enough to fund the state’s goals.

“This year’s ‘April Surprise’ was a good one; state revenues exceeded expectations by millions,” Mazzeo said in a statement. “That’s why I’m pleased to support this budget, which allows us to fund our priorities and provide property-tax relief, without the addition of a millionaire’s tax.”

The Legislature’s 2020 budget includes $100 million in new legislative spending priorities and $75 million more for NJ Transit, compared with an additional $25 million for NJ Transit in Murphy’s $38.6 billion budget.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney said at an editorial board meeting Wednesday at The Press of Atlantic City that NJ Transit is $135 million in debt, and this year’s increased funding should only be a down payment on future increases.

He also explained why he is so adamantly opposed to the millionaire’s tax.

“Until the administration recognizes and is willing to deal with the fiscal crisis the state’s in, we are not raising taxes,” Sweeney said. “We are $130 billion — not million dollars — in the hole now between retiree health care and pensions. It is the governor’s job to work with us to fix that, and the lack of acknowledgement is troubling.”

The state constitution requires a balanced budget be in effect by July 1.

“We are pleased that the budget advanced by the Legislature today forgoes tax increases when New Jersey taxpayers have clearly had enough,” said New Jersey Business & Industry Association President and CEO Michele N. Siekerka.

Siekerka said the wealthiest 1.5% of New Jersey residents already pay 40% of the state’s annual gross income-tax revenue.

“We should not be giving those residents any more reason to consider leaving our great state, particularly when we have yet to fix our structural deficiencies that have contributed to the state’s long-term debt obligations increasing 382% from 2007-17,” she said.

But Kevin Brown, vice president and New Jersey state director of the Service Employees International Union, said his members are disappointed the rich won’t be asked to contribute more to help the state.

“As a union that represents thousands of security officers, doorpersons, cleaners, airport workers and school cafeteria workers in New Jersey, we support important measures like the millionaire’s tax because we need a permanent solution to the state budget crisis, and the burden should not be put on working families,” Brown said in a statement.

Assembly Minority Leader John Bramnick, R-Somerset, Morris, Union, said the state is on a “crash course with bankruptcy” because of high debt and underfunded health care and pension systems for state workers.

He said the budget “does not address any of the serious structural problems that cause serious issues with the taxpayers of New Jersey.”

Mazzeo said Atlantic County residents will benefit from many aspects of the budget.

“So much of this budget will have a direct impact on Atlantic County residents, from $75 million in increased funding for NJ Transit — of which we are prepared to fight for our fair share for the Atlantic City Rail Line — to almost $175 million towards property-tax relief,” Mazzeo said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Fatal shooting of Atlantic County man in Colombia leaves unanswered questions

Questions remain after a group of friends’ care-free vacation to South America ended with the death a 29-year-old Atlantic County man last week.

Josh Oliver, who friends say worked in the Atlantic City nightlife industry and grew up in Mays Landing, was fatally shot in Colombia on June 13 in the country’s second-largest city, Medellín.

Police there said Oliver was killed by an unknown assailant who approached him without speaking, shot him several times and immediately fled, according to reports in the city’s newspaper, El Colombiano.

Oliver’s family could not be reached for comment.

Medellin, which was once the headquarters for Pablo Escobar’s cartel in the late 1980s and one of the world’s deadliest cities, has seen a significant drop in crime and has been lauded for its transformation into a popular tourist destination in the past decades.

La Policia Metropolitana del Valle de Aburra, which polices the city and the surrounding area, reported an 87% drop in homicides since 1992, according to its 2017 accountability report.

Oliver was in a group of seven friends, some of whom had traveled together previously, who decided to take another trip to the South American country for a nine-day stay at the beginning of June.

Joe Lamberti, who had traveled with Oliver on this and a previous trip to Medellin, described it as a blissful excursion where their dollars went farther for quality dining and high-end accommodations.

“It’s heaven on Earth, they call it. It’s the land of eternal spring. It’s the most beautiful place you could go to,” Lamberti said.

They stayed in a seven-bedroom Airbnb with a security guard out front in a familiar area he described as safe, with restaurants, bars and supermarkets nearby.

“Every day, we would eat together — every meal. We’d go everywhere together. We’re a group the whole time. Very rarely is one missing,” he said.

Lamberti said there were times he and others cried “tears of joy” because of how beautiful the city was.

But, according to Lamberti, things got stressful when the group made their way to leave the country.

Oliver, who stayed up with a local woman the night before, slept through the morning plans Lamberti had arranged and got ready to depart in a hurry.

When they arrived at the airport, Oliver said he’d forgotten his passport at the rental home and would miss the flight going back to retrieve it.

Because there were no more flights available out of the country for another two days, he also had to find a new place to stay, Lamberti said.

Giving Oliver the rest of their cash and believing he would be safe in the city, the friends decided to let him stay behind.

“It sucks that you’re not leaving and maybe you’re a little frightened to stay by yourself, but you’re going to be OK,” Lamberti said.

However, when Oliver returned to the Airbnb, he told Lamberti he did not find his passport there.

He then made plans to get an emergency passport at the U.S. Embassy in the country’s capital, Bogota.

He told Lamberti he’d booked a hotel and went out with a different local woman Oliver had allegedly known from his previous travels. The pair went out to a restaurant that served mostly local customers, Lamberti said.

The last time anyone heard from him was the morning of June 13, when Oliver was supposed to catch his flight, texting friends that he was awake.

Dan Fiorentino was not on the trip but was listed as Josh’s emergency contact. He received a call June 13 from the embassy about 1 p.m. Officials told him his friend had been shot and killed.

“I was devastated. I felt like everything dropped out from underneath of me,” Fiorentino said.

He had grown close to Oliver over the past two years.

“He was just full of life,” Fiorentino said. “He was never in a bad mood. I was always in a bad mood, and he always put me in a good mood.”

Police in Medellin told El Colombiano that Oliver was killed in the Belén Rosales neighborhood on the western side of the city. They are analyzing the area’s security cameras and working with U.S. officials, according to the report.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said the agency was aware of the reports of the death of a U.S. citizen in Medellin.

When a U.S. citizen dies abroad, the department provides consular assistance to family and friends, such as locating and informing next of kin and providing information on local burial arrangements or the return of remains to the United States.

Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez said the murder was the work of a hired killer. He told El Colombiano attempted robbery was ruled out as a motive for the murder because Oliver’s wallet, cellphone and other belongings were not taken. They are being analyzed by authorities, he said.

Lamberti said pictures of the area he’s seen in the media don’t match the description of the nice hotel where Oliver said he was staying.

“We don’t know what he was doing there,” Lamberti said “Why was he there? Who was he there for? These are the questions we’re trying to get answered.”

Oliver’s body is reportedly still in Colombia. There is no word yet on burial or funeral plans.