Murphy and Sweeney diverge on key tax issues

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

At their bipartisan winter meeting, New Jersey mayors worried about higher bills and levies in a state with the nation’s steepest property taxes and third highest cost-of-living index. How do you spell “relief?” Top Democrats, who now control the governor’s office and legislature, offered different views.

“It’s not too hard to figure out. Either you’re going to have a big hole or you’re going to have to raise a lot of taxes. I’m of the mindset that, we’re not going to raise taxes,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

That’s a crowd-pleasing pivot for Sweeney, who’s a former sponsor of the so-called millionaire’s tax. Sweeney set up a panel to study tax reform, including consolidating school systems and government services. He says polls show 30 percent of New Jersey residents want to leave.

“The taxpayers have had enough, and I stand with them saying, ‘Let’s look at other ways to make this thing work before we go back and ask for more money,’ because people can leave,” said Sweeney.

“How do you like that — the Senate president, a Democrat, standing against a millionaire’s tax or any new taxes? And that’s what he said. How do you like that. We used to have to rely on the veto pen of Gov. Chris Christie,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.

It plainly showed that on this issue, Sweeney is out of sync with Gov. Murphy, who told mayors New Jersey’s biggest money makers should pay more.

“I am no less committed than I was three months ago to ensuring that the wealthiest among us pay their fair share in taxes, and that we close the tax loopholes which exist only for the benefit of a select few,” said Murphy. “The wealthiest among us have made out just fine over the past eight years and continue to see their incomes climb.”

“Any time you raise a tax, it’s going to hurt. And there’s a lot of taxes the governor’s talking about raising. I know that Sen. Sweeney is going to work hard to reduce those taxes. So, it’s going to be kind of interesting, how they all work together,” said Point Pleasant Beach Borough Mayor Stephen Reid.

There’s also some daylight between the Senate president and the governor on how to handle the Trump tax reform, which capped so-called SALT deductions for state and local taxes at $10,000. Murphy is pushing a workaround plan that would let homeowners pay local property taxes as charitable contributions, which are still deductible.

“And I call upon the Legislature, Jon, to you and your colleagues on both sides of the aisle, to send to my desk as fast as possible a bill to ensure municipalities can, without any state roadblocks, create the charitable funds needed to implement this program,” said Murphy.

“Well, he didn’t have to call on us. We’re already doing it. Congressman Gottheimer and myself, Sen. Sarlo and others, have been drafting a bill. If he wants something from us, he should just call us, rather than publicly calling us out,” said Sweeney.

Sweeney said the governor hasn’t called him to sit down to thoroughly discuss these issues and synchronize a plan.

“He needs to either walk down the street, meet with the Senate president in his office, or get the Senate president over to the governor’s office and start doing a little bit more one-on-ones, this kind of thing,” said Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray. “This is the scuttlebutt here in Trenton. Right now, it’s really coming down to a personal relationship and the ball has to be in the governor’s court. He’s new.”

Gov. Murphy is going to be introducing his first state budget next month, and New Jersey mayors will be watching closely to see where the revenue is raised and how it’s spent.