What the N.J. governor candidates are talking about before June 6 primary

Among the candidates running to become the next governor of New Jersey are Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (left) and former Wall Street businessman and ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy.

The political subtext of the 2017 New Jersey gubernatorial race is clear: Gov. Christie is historically unpopular, presenting a challenge for Republicans who must convince voters that their governorship would not represent a third Christie term.

Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to capitalize on voter antipathy for President Trump, whose approval rating in the Garden State is just 28 percent, according to the latest such measurement from the Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind poll.

Yet no single policy debate has defined the so far low-key campaign ahead of the state’s June 6 primaries. Candidates are proposing policies on a variety of issues, but each seems to be searching for a signature issue.

(Included are the candidates who have qualified to participate in the primary debates, the first of which is scheduled for May 9 at Stockton University.)

REPUBLICANS

Kim Guadagno, lieutenant governor, of Monmouth County

New Jersey holds the ignominious distinction of having the highest property-tax burden in the nation, and candidates for governor and down-ballot offices always vow to tackle the problem. The average property-tax bill was $8,549 in 2016, according to state data, up 2.3 percent from $8,353 the previous year.

Guadagno has released the most detailed property-tax plan of all the candidates. Of course, that also has opened her to criticism.

Guadagno wants to cap the school portion of a resident’s property-tax bill to 5 percent of household income. Taxpayers would receive a credit for any amount owed in excess of that threshold.

Thus, her campaign says, a household that earns $100,000 annually and that owes $6,000 on the school portion of their property-tax bill would pay $5,000 and receive a $1,000 credit, with the state making up the difference. The benefit would be capped at $3,000 a household.

Guadagno projects that this would cost the state $1.5 billion annually.

The plan is designed to help the “most vulnerable people in New Jersey,” Guadagno said in an interview, those living paycheck to paycheck, senior citizens, and young people who may be able to afford a home but cannot also pay high property taxes.

Guadagno provides few details on how the state would pay for her plan. She says she would find savings through an “audit” of Trenton, for example. Increased tax-revenue growth would also help fund the plan, she said. Critics, such as fellow GOP candidate Jack Ciattarelli, say this funding proposal is the same approach that has led to downgrades in the state credit rating.

Jack Ciattarelli, state assemblyman, of Somerset County

Ciattarelli says he would prioritize changing the formula the state uses to fund public school districts. He wants to redistribute aid from some districts he argues are overfunded, such as Jersey City, to those he deems underfunded, such as Delran, Egg Harbor Township, and Woodbridge.

The disparity stems, in part, from a 2008 school-funding law that allocated extra aid to districts that were set to lose money over time. That so-called adjustment aid was intended to be temporary, but districts such as Jersey City continue to receive it.

Some Democrats in the Legislature, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County, support similar changes.

Ciattarelli wants to go a step further, however, by “reweighting cost-per-student spending targets.” He wants to reallocate aid from low-income Abbott districts — named after a landmark state Supreme Court case that dates to the 1980s — to “middle” and “working-class” districts.  

DEMOCRATS

Phil Murphy, former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany, of Monmouth County

Murphy’s most detailed, and novel, proposed policy is for the state to create a public bank — owned by taxpayers, through the government — that would use billions of dollars in revenues to invest in infrastructure and provide loans to small businesses and students, among other things. The bank would return profits to the state as nontax revenue, according to his campaign.

North Dakota is the only state with a public bank. It was established in 1919.

Some problems/challenges: Unlike private banks, a public bank wouldn’t pay interest to the state, cutting off a revenue source; the goals of lending to small businesses and helping to stabilize the state’s finances could conflict during a credit crunch; and potential start-up costs would be considerable.

Advocates in a number of states began arguing for public banks in the aftermath of the Great Recession, asserting that such institutions could stabilize state economies, provide greater access to credit, boost private banks' lending capacity, and contribute revenues to state government, according to a 2011 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

The study found little evidence that North Dakota’s bank could be a model for other states.

Murphy’s opponents have also noted that the bank would not be federally insured, increasing risk to taxpayers, and argued that the board of a state bank in New Jersey could be vulnerable to political pressures.

Jim Johnson, assistant treasury secretary under President Clinton, former federal prosecutor, of Essex County

Johnson, of Montclair, has made ethics reform the foundation of his campaign.

He wants to ban no-bid contracts and campaign contributions from lobbyists; require disclosure of lobbying activity at the municipal and county levels; and prohibit public officials from receiving more than one pension, among other measures.

John Wisniewski, state assemblyman, of Middlesex County

Wisniewski was state director for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Now running for New Jersey governor, Wisniewski is advocating for a number of Sanders-style proposals, including single-payer health care and free university and college tuition for students whose families earn $125,000 or less.

Ray Lesniak, state senator, of Union County

Lesniak says he is dedicated to fighting the Christie administration’s $225 million settlement with Exxon Mobil over a pollution lawsuit, arguing that the state should receive far more.

Lesniak has also taken up the cause of animal rights, pushing, for example, to ban puppy mills and end bear hunts, leghold traps, and gestation crates for pigs.

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