The current New Jersey Constitution was enacted less than two years after the end of World War II. Harry Truman was president, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball and there were 48 states.

There have been numerous amendments since that 1947 approval — a unified court system, establishment of a state lottery, legalized casino gambling, creating the office of lieutenant governor, among the more prominent — but scant attention has been paid to using the constitution to create a modern state tax structure, particularly as it relates to the property tax system.

Given New Jersey’s long run as the national leader in average property taxes — $8,797 at last count — the time has arrived for the administration and the Legislature to revisit the idea of convening a constitutional convention to examine state and local tax systems and seek alternatives, refinements and structural changes.

The Legislature has a template to follow, including calling the convention, setting its terms and responsibilities and establishing the method for selecting delegates.

Suggestions for such a convention have arisen from time to time but never attracted broad support largely out of concern that neither the administration nor the Legislature could exert influence over its deliberations and conclusions.

The convention delegates, free from political considerations and private interest pressures, could, it was feared, recommend a broad restructuring of the tax code that could be politically risky or opposed by entrenched interest groups concerned about closing loopholes and eliminating provisions favorable to them.

Supporters of a convention urged that it be limited to taxation issues rather than open-ended to avoid the potential for more controversial matters to be introduced and debated.

Some 1,200 government entities — school districts, municipalities and counties — derive operating expenses from local taxation and, as expenses increase each year, the tax rate rises to keep pace.

Property taxes consistently rank first as the state’s most troubling problem, the principal reason for out-migration and a deterrent to business investment. It is routinely referred to as a crisis but rarely treated as one.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent promise to include “enormous” direct property tax relief in his fiscal 2020-21 budget likely means a substantial cash infusion in state aid to local school districts, presumably funded by increasing taxes on incomes in excess of $1 million.

His claim that “a dollar in state aid is a dollar school districts do not have to ask in taxes” is rather disingenuous since local districts are free to allocate any additional aid any way they see fit.

Murphy’s pledge is the path administrations and legislatures have followed for years, but with limited success. Property taxes have continued to increase, albeit at a slower rate due to the 2% cap on tax increases.

Even the average property tax of nearly $9,000 is a somewhat misleading figure in light of the growing number of municipalities that long ago broke the $10,000 mark and many others approaching $20,000.

It is, though, indicative of the difficulty in leaning on state government to exert greater control over property taxes.

The state does not establish the local rate, collect the revenue or determine how the funds are allocated.

The amount of aid is established in the state budget process, leaving municipalities and school districts hanging from year to year unable to plan longer range and often forced into last minute scrambling to offset aid losses.

In times of economic slowdown and a drop off in revenue, reducing school aid is a ready option. Flat funding or modest increases have become routine.

The aid system survives because no viable alternative exists and many legislators concede there is no political will to change it. It is less risky to support a system consistently identified as the most troubling to taxpayers — the crushing property tax burden — than to strike out in a new direction.

There is nothing to lose and potentially a great deal to be gained by convening a constitutional convention to bring together delegates with expertise in government finance, education, economics and tax policy to unpack the current tax structure and rebuild it to reflect 21st century needs. It is an ambitious undertaking, but if the word “crisis” is to be taken seriously, it is an idea whose time has arrived.

It’s been nearly three-quarters of a century since adoption of the current constitution and society, government and politics have experienced dramatic changes and advancements in virtually every field of endeavor.

It’s time to recognize that.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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