Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sweeney Says that Property Taxes will be a Priority, Says "Adjustment Aid" Should be Eliminated!

The Asbury Park Press has now written an article about their interview with Steve Sweeney.

In the article Steven Sweeney says "property taxes will be a priority" and says that he and Jennifer Beck are working on a more equitable distribution of state aid by eliminating the "hold harmless" provisions in SFRA, ie, eliminate "Adjustment Aid."

Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told the Asbury Park Press editorial board that lowering the property tax burden requires good decisions about sharing services by counties, municipalities and school districts and that the state’s affordability issues are broader than property taxes.

But he said that property taxes, which rose by a statewide average of 2.4 percent last year, the fastest growth since 2011, will be a priority.

“I absolutely intend to. Look, I have never not focused on that,” Sweeney said. “But my point is you have to do a lot of these things. Look, (exempting more seniors’ income from taxation) will help seniors be here some more, too. We have to fix property taxes. There’s no argument on that.”

“Property taxes are right up there. They’re right at the top, and fixing the school funding formula or at least redistributing the aid will assist in that,” Sweeney said.

More than 14,000 New Jerseyans signed an Asbury Park Press petition calling on state lawmakers to reduce property taxes, for long the No. 1 issue in the state, according to opinion polls.

Sweeney said he’s been talking with Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, about a more equitable school funding plan. One change he envisions: eliminating the so-called “hold harmless” provision that protects some districts from having their aid cuts — even if enrollments decline. [my note: "Hold Harmless aid is Adjustment Aid. It also should be noted that Adjustment Aid protects districts from aid losses even if the district's wealth increases enormously.]
Sweeney, however, acknowledges how difficult state aid reform is politically.
The challenge in making that change is that the change costs districts funds their hometown lawmakers won’t endorse. Hoboken could be cut by $1.8 million, Phillipsburg by $4 million, Jersey City by $48 million.

“This is one of those issues that it’s going to be very hard to get 21 and 41,” Sweeney said, referring to the number of votes a bill needs to pass the Senate and Assembly, “but there’s a fairness issue. Our school funding formula worked. One of the big problems was the hold-harmless clause.”
Sweeney of course is correct about the difficulty of getting legislative majorities for aid reform, but there are some non-legislative opponents of reform he doesn't address.  The Education Law Center has come out staunchly in favor of Adjustment Aid as well.  The ELC's report on Adjustment Aid, is highly misleading, as I've written about here and here.
Click for a higher resolution.

Again, Steve Sweeney is the only Democratic gubernatorial  talking about property taxes and state aid fairness.  Sen. Ray Lesniak, in listing "10 Traits Needed By NJ's Next Governor," didn't mention anything even remotely relating to taxes.  Phil Murphy, whose "New Way for NJ" has a nine-part agenda and whose "New Start New Jersey" has a separate, overlapping agenda, also doesn't even mention anything relating to taxes.  Mayor Steven Fulop, also skips mentioning taxes, and since he cancelled Jersey City's tax reassessment, opposes even the basic principle of fair taxation.

Sweeney, even recently, has proposed very expensive measures like expanded Pre-K and fully funding pensions (which is economic suicide), but through his support for state aid reform, he recognizes that the problem with New Jersey's property taxes isn't just the level, but the unevenness.  Sweeney also doesn't indicate that he thinks NJ's other taxes have reached crisis levels.

(As a minor note, I do not think the numbers Sweeney and Michael Symons give for overaiding are correct.  The APP gives $1.8 million in excess for Hoboken, $4 million for Phillipsburg, and $48 million for Jersey City.

According to data from the Department of Education, those districts are overaided by $4.8 million, $2.6 million, and $111 million, respectively.)

Anyway, reforming state aid is a very heavy political lift, but I am grateful to Steve Sweeney (and Jennifer Beck) for trying.

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