TRENTON - A day after most of them voted for a $2.3 billion property-tax credit program proposed by the Democratic majority, Assembly Republicans yesterday said the tax plan could be struck down in court.

On Monday, the Assembly voted 71-8 to approve the credit program, which Democrats have made the centerpiece of their months-long effort to overhaul the country's highest property taxes. The program would grant homeowners different levels of relief depending on their income levels, with those households making less than $100,000 getting the biggest break - 20 percent.

Democrats say the program is not only legally sound, but fair, helping those least able to pay the most.

But GOP lawmakers, many of whom complained that the bill creating the program was rushed through without proper study, yesterday argued that the graduated nature of the credits violates the so-called "uniformity clause" of the state constitution.

Under that clause, Republicans say, property taxes must be based on the property - not the owner's ability to pay. And, they say, they have rulings from prior attorneys general and the courts to back them up.

In a legal analysis prepared for Republican lawmakers yesterday, attorney Mark Sheridan concluded that "the very premise of the Democrats' plan is constitutionally infirm. Neither the Governor nor the Legislature can grant tax credits based upon the income level of the property owner."

Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R., Morris) noted that Democrats had a record of pushing through measures later deemed unconstitutional. GOP lawmakers have in recent years challenged Democrats' use of borrowing to balance the budget, a strategy the courts have struck down as improper.

"Now it appears they are hell bent on ignoring the state constitution again," DeCroce said. "Except this time, they are risking property-tax relief that homeowners desperately need."

He said he and many of his GOP colleagues voted for the tax credits because "we were assured by the Democratic sponsors that the bill would pass constitutional muster."

"If I had known what I know today, I would have taken a different approach," he said.

DeCroce and his colleagues implored the state Senate, which is scheduled to consider the credit program on Monday, and Gov. Corzine, who would have to sign it into law, to fix the bill before it's too late.

David Wald, a spokesman for Attorney General Stuart Rabner, said the office had read the GOP's arguments and "we are reviewing the matter."

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, said no further review was required. For months, they said, they have made it clear how the credit program would be structured.

Responding to the GOP attack with a flurry of harshly worded press releases, Democrats insisted their plan was, and still is, constitutional. Republicans, who have long criticized the Democrat-led property-tax overhaul, were simply trying to sink the effort in the 11th hour, they charged.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D., Essex), a lawyer who helped craft the credit bill, said the uniformity clause "pertains to the way property is taxed and assessed, not with how the state delivers relief."

"This is nothing short of a desperate attempt by the Republican fringe to deny the delivery of property tax relief to New Jersey residents," McKeon said. "They are making a bogus case for political show."

Added Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), who also sponsored the bill: "If the Republicans and their lawyers want to continue along this path, they do so at their own risk because the state constitution and the residents of New Jersey are in our corner."

Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley jumped into the fray, too, suggesting the GOP move was nothing more than a political stunt.

"We smell a rat," Coley said in a statement. "We're not exactly sure what some of our Republican friends are up to, but one thing's for sure: New Jersey's middle- and moderate-income families need and deserve lasting property-tax relief and reform; this political maneuver is a roadblock to that."

DeCroce stood his ground, saying that while GOP lawmakers would not challenge the credit program in the court, "someone could."

And fixing the bill to avoid a legal challenge, he said, was easy.

DeCroce suggested the program could be altered so that all homeowners receive the same amount of relief - an outcome many Republicans have been advocating from the outset. To keep the program as proposed, he said, would require a constitutional amendment through voter approval.

Democratic lawmakers said that would be a waste of time.

"We believe there is a clear and firm legal foundation for our plan," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden). "We think it's essential that the plan move forward and that property-tax reform not be sidetracked."

N.J. Tax Reform

Status of the Legislature's effort to overhaul property taxes:

Approved

The Assembly approved capping property tax increases at 4 percent annually and giving a 20 percent property tax cut to most homeowners.

The Assembly and Senate have adopted bills to create a commission that would recommend town mergers, subject to voter approval; create a state comptroller to investigate government spending; impose new rules for school administrator contracts; and strip pensions and require jail time for corrupt public officials.

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

The Senate approved revising benefits for newly elected and appointed officials.

The Assembly amended that bill to bar newly elected officials from simultaneously holding more than one elected office.

What's next

The Senate will meet Monday to consider the tax cut and cap and maybe the amended pension reform bill.

Not happening

A new school funding formula remains incomplete.

The Assembly-approved plan to create county school chiefs with strong authority is stalled in the Senate.

A plan to allow a county to form a countywide school to test effectiveness is dead.

SOURCE: Associated Press

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