Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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N.J. can't afford expensive tax breaks

It would be nice if you could splurge anytime you wanted and put an expensive item like a Bianchi bike or the new iPhone on a credit card. But most people who know they can’t afford to spend that kind money won’t do it.

N.J. can't afford expensive tax breaks

Gov. Christie gave his budget address while Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Senate President Stephen Sweeney watched. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Gov. Christie gave his budget address while Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Senate President Stephen Sweeney watched. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)

It would be nice if you could splurge anytime you wanted and put an expensive item like a Bianchi bike or the new iPhone on a credit card. But most people who know they can’t afford to spend that kind money won’t do it.

So why is it that New Jersey public officials seem incapable of exerting the same fiscal discipline that regular people impose on themselves — no matter who’s running state government. Gov. Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester),  and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) all want to give New Jersey residents tax breaks that would cost the state roughly $1.4 billion by the time they’re fully implemented in a few years.

Christie wants to implement a 10 percent income-tax break, which would mostly benefit wealthy wage earners and fails to address the levy that drains taxpayers the most — the property tax. Sweeney and Oliver would provide needed property-tax relief, but Oliver’s plan makes more sense because it relies, in part, on funds generated by raising the state’s tax on millionaire incomes. The problem with all three tax-break plans, however, is that the state simply can’t afford them.

In fact, the state Treasurer’s Office has predicted a $676 million shortfall and the bipartisan Office of Legislative Services predicts double that next year. While the revenue prognosticators’ numbers vary widely, they tell a similar story: New Jersey is not going to pull in as much tax money as was initially thought.

Revenues this year are falling short of their marks. Unemployment is at a stubborn 9.1 percent. Analysts say New Jersey is not recovering from the recession as quickly as the rest of the nation. So what does Christie propose doing to provide his tax break? He wants to borrow money through a circuitous route. He would take about $260 million set aside for transportation projects, and then borrow $260 million to replenish the transportation fund.

New Jersey has been down this road before. Past governors have followed the same borrow-and-spend path to disastrous results. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman borrowed $2.7 billion in 1997 to bail out the pension fund, which had been previously raided to balance budgets. Gov. James E. McGreevey borrowed $2 billion in 2004 to balance the state budget.

Christie’s roundabout borrowing scheme is nowhere near the magnitude of Whitman’s and McGreevey’s borrowing. But he is letting the camel stick its nose under the tent in a way that undermines all the arguments he previously made about imposing fiscal discipline on the state.

Given its revenue projections, New Jersey would be better off forgetting tax cuts for now, or requiring in the budget legislation that any cuts be triggered by healthier figures. That way, if revenue doesn’t perk up, there would be no tax cuts to harm the state’s fragile fiscal health. But if the revenue looks good, maybe buying a Bianchi bike can become more than a pipe dream.

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