When New Jersey voters elected Chris Christie eight years ago, the state’s high property taxes topped the list of voter concerns.
And as voters prepare to elect his replacement, property taxes are still their top priority.
That’s no surprise in the state with the highest property taxes in the country, with an average annual tax bill of almost $8,300 for homeowners, according to state figures. But what actually happened to real estate levies in the Christie era?
N.J. Property Taxes Still High, But Growth Is Slowing
Taxes continued to increase. However, after adjusting for inflation, the changes were negligible, with annual property taxes increasing only $200 between 2010, when Christie took office, and 2016. And year-to-year during the Christie administration, the average bill increased at a slower rate than it did during the tenure of Jon Corzine, his Democratic predecessor.
Yet New Jersey still has the highest effective tax rate in the country (taxes expressed as a percentage of a home’s market value), voters still complain about it, and Christie’s successor, the winner of the Nov. 7 race between Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Kim Guadagno, will inherit what has been an intractable issue.
The next governor also will inherit a skeptical electorate.
A recent Monmouth University poll found that 70 percent of New Jersey voters think any plan by a candidate to lower taxes is simply a political ploy. Only 20 percent of voters said they would be open to seeing proposals about property taxes as genuine efforts to fix the problem.
“Basically, what it comes down to is that voters have heard promises for too long on this issue,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Taxes have topped the issue list among voters since 2005, Murray said, when Corzine was elected. Property taxes were part of campaign rhetoric, but Murray said the Corzine administration failed to follow through.
“Since then, voters just feel that they have not gotten any real relief in the area of property taxes,” Murray said. “Which is why they’re disinclined to believe any politician running today.”
Guadagno, who is Christie’s lieutenant governor, has sought to make property taxes a focal point of her campaign by offering a promise to lower them. Murphy, her Democratic opponent, has said that ensuring schools are funded by the state will help lower taxes, because school district taxes account for a substantial portion of tax bills.
When Christie ran for his first term in 2009, he spoke broadly about cutting spending and taxes, but offered few specifics. He did, however, have the advantage of criticizing the incumbent.
“Nobody in the state believes he’s done anything to help property taxes and the reason they don’t believe him is because of the trail of broken promises he’s left,” Christie said of Corzine during his 2009 campaign.
By the time Christie won his second term in 2013, polls showed that voters were dissatisfied with his handling of the issue.
Christie contends he has successfully reined in property taxes, thanks in part to a 2010 law passed by the Legislature that reduced the cap on annual increases from 4 percent to 2 percent. Increases seen in the average property tax bills for homeowners were, in fact, smaller than during Corzine’s tenure.
But substantially reducing real estate levies in New Jersey would be a complicated undertaking. Among the biggest expenses for counties, schools, and municipalities are contractually negotiated wages and benefits. The state has a high cost of living, and it ranks fourth in the country for government-employee salaries at about $75,000 annually, or $88.50 per capita.
Most voters evidently have come to expect that politicians won’t do much about taxes.
Notwithstanding the cap, which had the backing of lawmakers, Christie avoided confronting the property-tax issue directly, Murray said. Yet he won reelection by a wide margin in 2013.
“Chris Christie demonstrated that you can avoid dealing with property taxes head on and still serve two terms, if things go your way,” he said. “And I think the story that we’ve seen over the past 12 years or so is, ‘well let’s just ignore the situation.’ ”