TRENTON - Deflecting criticism that the legislation had been so watered down it would be ineffective, New Jersey lawmakers yesterday advanced two more bills aimed at curbing the country's highest property taxes.

Senators approved, 22-17, the creation of a state comptroller to keep spending in check by rooting out financial abuses and corruption.

They then endorsed, 39-1, legislation designed to rein in the cost of public employee retirement and health benefits and end pension abuses.

Both bills head to the Assembly.

Several Republicans said the measures were a reflection of the Democratic-led property-tax effort, which critics complain is being pulled apart by lawmakers trying to placate too many interest groups.

A few notable Democrats - sponsors who removed their names from the bills in protest - had harsh words for the process, too.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), who chaired a special committee charged with finding ways to cut property taxes by reducing the cost of public pensions and benefits, cast the sole vote against the pension legislation.

It looked, he said during an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, nothing like the bill that his panel recommended and that he sponsored.

That bill, Scutari said, "would have actually done something to reduce spending and move us forward."

The final legislation, he said, would not save any significant amount of money - and therefore would not significantly affect property taxes.

"To say this bill could be stronger is about the biggest understatement I've heard today," Scutari said. "I could not be more adamantly opposed to this bill. I am gravely disappointed."

The bill originally would have legislated more than 40 recommendations by Scutari's committee, at one point tackling health and pension costs for career public employees as well as elected and appointed officials. But Gov. Corzine asked that provisions targeting union employees be removed so his staff could address them in bargaining instead.

Since then, a provision to ban dual office holding by elected officials was taken out. And changes exempted certain local officials - including municipal clerks and tax assessors - from a clause prohibiting employees from collecting pension credits for more than one job.

Senate President Richard J. Codey said yesterday that the clause was meant to target professionals such as lawyers and engineers who do municipal work on contract - not career public employees who do part-time work in more than one town.

Codey (D., Essex) added that the dual-office provision was not dead, and would likely be voted on when the Senate reconvenes Feb. 5.

Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon) said he voted for the pension bill yesterday because while "we would have preferred it go further," he believed "we have made progress in this area."

Lance and most of his fellow Republicans would not, however, bend on the comptroller bill, which they argued had been gutted since the Assembly passed a version this month. Just one Republican - Sen. William Gormley of Atlantic County - voted for the new bill yesterday.

"Here we go again," Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth) said. "We have an opportunity to pass a dramatic reform measure . . . [and] we are blowing it."

During almost two hours of debate, critics singled out an amendment that would take away the comptroller's authority to preapprove municipal development deals, long a target of corrupt officials in New Jersey. They also lambasted changes to the comptroller's auditing powers.

Opponents said those changes would allow the comptroller to review only existing audits of towns, school boards, and other local government entities.

Bill advocates said that wasn't so. Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny (D., Hudson), a prime sponsor of the bill, said that if the comptroller found anything suspect in an audit, the office could pursue it further. And any state agency, including the Inspector General's Office, could ask the comptroller to initiate an audit, Kenny said.

The bill "does not in any way eliminate the ability of the comptroller to audit anyone," agreed Sen. Nia Gill (D., Essex).

Corzine, who demanded a comptroller as a condition of his endorsement of a property-tax credit program backed by legislative leaders, said the bill contained everything he wanted.

"I like the bill," he said. "I think it's strong."

Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), who sponsored the original comptroller bill, said that colleagues - including Corzine - had tried to convince her otherwise, but that after careful review she believed the measure had been "watered down and emasculated." She was the only Democrat to cast a no vote yesterday.

The bill "creates a watchdog that in my estimation is a paper tiger," she said.

The Assembly could vote on the bill Monday, although Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) said there was "concern" about changes made to the comptroller's ability to scrutinize local land deals.

The Assembly is also poised to vote Monday on the Senate's pension and benefits legislation and a bill that would require public officials convicted of corruption to forfeit their retirement benefits, Roberts said.

The speaker said he also hoped to consider a bill that would create the popular tax-credit program he and Codey have promised homeowners. Under the $2 billion program, most households - those making $100,000 a year or less - would get a 20 percent break on their annual property tax bill starting this year. The legislation, which awaits Senate consideration, would prohibit towns and school boards, except in extenuating circumstances, from raising property taxes more than 4 percent a year.

"Hopefully, we should take a giant step toward finishing our work," Roberts said.

Roberts and Codey expressed frustration at the pace of the property-tax effort, which lawmakers and Corzine had originally said they would wrap up last year.

"People in the state have waited long enough, and their patience has worn thin, and they're right to feel that," Roberts said.

But he and Codey dismissed accusations that the process had fallen apart and would result in little change.

"I'm frustrated it's taken as long as it has," Roberts said, "but I think the end product is going to be a very good one."

New Jersey Tax Proposals

What has been approved

The Assembly and the Senate adopted different versions of bills to ask voters to merge towns and create a comptroller to investigate government spending.

The Assembly approved a bill to create county school superintendents with authority over local schools.

The Senate adopted measures to strip pensions and require jail time for corrupt public workers and revise benefits for newly elected and appointed officials.

What's next

The Assembly will meet Monday to consider the Senate-approved bills on town mergers, a state comptroller, pension forfeiture and revised benefits. It may consider a plan to cap property-tax increases at 4 percent annually and give a 20 percent property-tax cut to most homeowners.

And after that

The Senate will meet Feb. 5 to consider the tax-cut and cap bill.

- Associated Press

EndText

How They Voted

These senators whose districts include parts of Burlington, Camden or Gloucester County voted to create a comptroller's office (all are Democrats):

John H. Adler

Wayne R. Bryant

Fred H. Madden

Stephen M. Sweeney

These (all Republicans) voted against the bill:

Diane B. Allen

Martha W. Bark

Leonard T. Connors

Robert W. Singer

EndText

Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 609-989-8990 or jmoroz@phillynews.com.