Counties join in rally for funding

By daniel walsh

EAST BRUNSWICK — Residents from Middlesex, Union, and Somerset counties called for state tax reform during a rally last week at the Vocational and Technical High School in East Brunswick.

The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) led residents in calling for a $1 billion statewide decrease in property taxes that would be matched dollar for dollar by an increase in state income taxes.

The proposal, which has been endorsed by the NJSBA’s membership, would provide property tax relief for 92 percent of taxpayers, according to NJSBA studies.

The plan would essentially change how school taxes are raised by shifting much of the burden to funds raised by income taxes.

"It’s really a fundamental change in school funding," said Charles Reilly, the president of the NJSBA. "Senior citizens out there want to support schools, but can’t because of limited incomes."

Judith Peoples, the NJSBA’s senior associate director for Government Relations, said that the rebalancing of state revenue would have no impact on local school budgets. Rather, it is a rebalancing of funding sources, not a tax increase.

"Right now, 60 percent of school funding comes from property taxes, while 40 percent comes from the state," Peoples said. "We want to rebalance that to about 50-50."

The logic behind the plan is to place the tax burden upon those who can pay and essentially tax the rich.

"Ninety-two percent of property and income taxpayers will come out ahead or even," Peoples said. "This will tax the highest 8 percent more."

Peoples contrasted the plan with Gov. Christine Whitman’s tax rebate plan by referring to it as a temporary solution. In times of economic downturn, the state Legislature can reduce or eliminate the rebate, Peoples said.

The plan drew support from county school board leaders and others of the crowd of about 40 people who attended the presentation.

"We all have a concern about property taxes because of those groups of senior citizens who regularly come out to defeat school budgets," said Lorraine Aklonis, the Union County SBA president.

State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-19) said that he understood the logic behind the plan, but felt that many politicians would be hesitant to support it.

"You’re up against some difficult arguments," Vitale told the assembled residents. "The last time we did something like that, in 1991, the Democrats got kicked out of office. It’s a very sensitive issue. It’s a very difficult argument to make, and it’s going to be difficult to get the Legislature and leaders of both parties to embrace this."

Just the same, Vitale said that he understood and agreed with the motivation to push for such a plan, but he was not sure whether or not he would support it.

"I’m willing to engage the dialogue," Vitale said. "We need comprehensive reform. I’m certainly supportive of that issue. I’m just not sure that’s how we’re going to do it."