Articles to Learn From

Lower property taxes in New Jersey? Here's a plan.

Lower property taxes in New Jersey? Here's a plan.

By Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger

With Gov. Chris Christie dancing around the empty boxing ring taking jabs at the air, Democrats are starting to talk about who should climb in to fight him in two years when he runs for re-election.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker could raise the needed money and is the only Democrat who can match the governor’s star power. Sen. Barbara Buono is staking out the progressive wing and could get support from energized public worker unions. Senate President Stephen Sweeney is the conservative Democrat, and Sen. Richard Codey is the only one with proven statewide popularity in both parties.

And then there is Lou Greenwald. If you haven’t heard of him, you have plenty of company. But in Trenton he’s been a central player for years as the carefully coiffed chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.

Greenwald, who has represented his Camden County district for 15 years, wants to climb into that ring with Christie, too. He won’t say so explicitly, but he comes close.

“It’s something I’d like to do at some point in my career,” he says.

Translation: I’m in, baby.

Greenwald doesn’t have Booker’s money or Codey’s charm. He might not even get the backing of his political patron, George Norcross, because Sweeney wants that as well.

What Greenwald has is an idea. And it’s a good one. He wants to give local governments in New Jersey the power to impose sales or income taxes, on the condition that every dime is used to reduce property taxes. It would be allowed only if local voters approve, and only if the town freezes spending for two years.

“I would give the towns the tools to choose their own fate,” Greenwald says. “You can stay with the property tax, or you can lower it with these other measures. Your choice.”

The governor, ever thoughtful and charming, called this a “monumentally stupid idea” and promised to veto it if it reached his desk. He called it a tax hike.

This one is a tough political lift, which is why Greenwald can’t convince even his fellow Democrats to sign on. It’s the kind of idea that can be murdered in a 30-second ad.

But the truth is that shifting the burden from one tax to another is not a tax hike. And New Jersey’s heavy reliance on the property tax is one reason we pay the highest rates in the nation.

The governor often praises Pennsylvania as a tax mecca compared to New Jersey. But Pennsylvania allows local governments to impose sales and income taxes. In all, 37 states allow locals to impose a sales tax, and 17 allow them to impose income taxes.

Yes, the main fight in New Jersey must be to reduce costs, especially the salaries and benefits of public workers. Christie has made a good start on that front and Democrats have been spotty in their support.

But even if Christie gets everything he wants, property taxes in New Jersey will continue to rise, just more slowly. That’s because he’s cut state aid to schools and towns. And with his pledge to never raise state taxes, that’s not likely to change.

As for the politics, Greenwald’s quest is beyond a long shot. No bill is likely to reach Christie’s desk. And if Greenwald uses this as the centerpiece of his campaign, he’s going to need a ton of money to overcome the easy attack on it as a tax hike.

But imagine for a moment that Greenwald pulled this off somehow. People in towns who voted to shift the burden would see something rare and beautiful — a property tax bill that is lower than it was the year before.

Greenwald is the sort of guy who never loosens his tie and never allows a single hair on his head to leave its assigned spot. These days, he’s taking his idea on the road, using a white board and markers to break it all down.

The effort may be futile in the end, but New Jersey’s hatred of the dreaded property tax gives him at least a whiff of hope.

“Whether you run for governor or not, this is a policy initiative that attacks the No. 1 problem,” he says. “Anyone who is serious needs to have an idea like this.”

And so far, Greenwald’s idea is the only game in town.