June 9, 2005 - www.goleader.com

Panel Discusses Merits of Constitutional Convention on Prop. Tax Reform During Forum

By DEBORAH MADISON

Specially Written for The Westfield Leader and The Times

 SCOTCH PLAINS -- Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks, who has been outspoken on the need for a property tax convention, called for a forum, last month, to discuss the issue of property tax reform. The Westfield Leader and Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times newspapers agreed to sponsor the event and invited representatives from all levels and segments of government for a discussion about property tax reform and the merits of holding a Constitutional Convention.

The format of the forum was a panel discussion, held at the Scotch Plains Municipal Building on Sunday, June 5. The participants were divided into two panels and questions were directed to the panelists by moderators from the staff of The Leader and The Times. The panelists included: Former State Senator Bill Schluter, Assemblywoman Linda Stender, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, Union County Freeholder Dan Sullivan, Scotch Plains Mayor Martin Marks, Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education President Linda Nelson, Leader/Times reporter Fred Rossi and Publisher of The Westfield Leader and Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times Horace Corbin on the first panel.

The second panel included: Union County Finance Director Larry Caroselli, New Providence Mayor and Chairman of the League of Municipalities, Al Morgan, Westfield Superintendent of Schools William Foley, former Mayor of Westfield Bud Boothe, Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr, Editor of The Leader and The Times Paul Peyton, Senator Schluter and Fred Rossi.

In the introduction to the discussion, Leader/Times Reporters Betsey Burgdorf and Michael Pollack told the panelists and audience some of the facts and figures regarding the extent of the problem facing New Jersey tax payers, such as: New Jersey has the highest property tax in the nation; in the last 10 years, New Jersey property taxes have doubled, rising 7 percent a year; the state’s property tax has quadrupled in the last 20 years; and in the last four years, the state has raised property tax faster than any other state.

Property taxes in New Jersey are composed of funding for public schools, municipal services, county government, authorities, such as the sewer tax, debt service and bonds for projects such as parks and open space.

Most of the panelists agreed that rising property taxes were a serious problem and that the current system of funding local services with property taxes was not working.

Several panelists stated that basing taxes on property values was unfair and antiquated. How this problem should be fixed was the chief focus of the discussion with many options and different opinions voiced by the participants. They also agreed that the issue of spending must be addressed. The current legislation before the State Senate addresses the revenue side only and the Senate is not authorized to discuss spending, which many lawmakers feel is not workable.

“Property tax is the most unfair tax on the books,” Mayor Marks purported. “It does not take into account the taxpayer’s ability to pay.”

Mr. Corbin questioned why, “with the state being $4 billion in debt in this year’s budget and $25 billion in debt just to cover the pension’s funds, that all the actions considered by the legislators have to deal with how to collect taxes and not control expenses. Now, Linda and John – I’d like to hear, you’re on the Assembly down there. I haven’t seen a bill passed yet.”

Assemblywoman Stender broke into the discussion by replying, “We have passed a bill considering a Constitutional Convention and we are talking about spending, because we’re talking about how we spend the money raised to provide services.”

The antiquated system of basing a tax on property values dates back to medieval times, added ex-Mayor Boothe. Other states have instituted other taxes to fund schools. One of the options discussed was raising the income tax in order to fund public schools.

A key issue debated by the panelists was whether to solve the problem by a special session of the legislature or by a Constitutional Convention. A Constitutional Convention would require voter approval to implement and voter approval of any change in the Constitution regarding the way in which local services, such as schools, are funded. A special session of the legislature would not require voter approval to implement. However, many of the panelists agreed that the legislature has had ample opportunities to discuss and vote on this issue, but has failed to do so.

“Bills have been introduced to the legislature on property tax many times,” Senator Schluter said, “and they were dead on arrival or voted down. The legislature has said they can’t address this issue, which is why a Constitutional Convention is needed.”

Senator Schluter was one of the leading proponents and crafters of a bill to convene a Constitutional Convention, introduced to the legislature in 2000.

Assemblywoman Stender said that, although she supports either solution, a Constitutional Convention would never work because the people would not vote for any plan that imposed the Robin Hood method of tax distribution to fund public schools. A Constitutional Convention, she explained would redistribute taxes, such as an income tax, more equitably, taking money from affluent towns and redistributing it to other districts.

Taxpayers in more affluent municipalities would never approve such a plan, she said. For this reason, she believes a special session would be the only way a new system would get approved.

Mayor Marks stated that the most compelling reason to hold a Constitutional Convention was because the legislature has historically proven that they are not willing to take up this issue and resolve it.

Assemblyman Bramnick said that the state legislature has never discussed the property tax issue. In fact, he added, the legislature passed a bill saying that they did not have the political will to discuss the issue.

“Politicians are afraid of the media,” Assemblyman Bramnick added. “The media, as the fourth arm of the government, needs to say to the legislature, you have to vote this up or down. That’s their job.”

Board of Education President Linda Nelson thanked the other panelists for not blaming the school boards for the escalating costs of property taxes. She suggested that if the state would pick up the tab for special education and other mandates, property taxes could be reduced significantly.

Superintendent of Schools Foley stated that alternate methods of funding in other states have devastated their public schools, such as Proposition 13 in California, which reduced property taxes in the early 1970s.

“A Constitutional Convention will only make matters worse,” Dr. Foley said.

“It is folly to think the legislature is going to debate this,” Mayor Marks opined. “If you don’t support a convention, you are supporting the status quo. History backs me up on this.”

“They (legislature) won’t vote for it,” Senator Schluter responded. “That’s not a reality in Trenton.”

Because a Constitutional Convention has to be approved by the public, the delegates will have to come up with a plan that is palatable to the public, he said.

“However, if the Abbot Districts are put on the agenda, it’s too divisive,” said Senator Schluter. “And will a plan by a Constitutional Convention say that school districts should be regionalized? No, they will have to mandate it.”

Mayor Marks suggested that because the legislature is politically motivated, the issue would be too bipartisan depending on which party crafted a bill. A Constitutional Convention, on the other hand, would be convened by 80 delegates, elected by the people having no political affiliations, in addition to 40 delegates selected by the legislature.

Mayor Marks said that the bill currently on the floor of the Senate was dead because acting Governor and Senate President Richard Codey did not vote on it post the bill.

“His legacy will be that he was the biggest roadblock to property tax reform. I hope that the next Governor has more spine,” Mayor Marks added.

Other options discussed included shared services, regionalization of school districts and the duplication of services and waste by local, county and state governments.

“There is a tremendous amount of redundancy in government and schools,” Mayor Mahr said, “but then everyone wants home rule.” She added, “We need to have intolerance for those legislators who don’t vote.”

Mr. Boothe said that he is appalled by how the gubernatorial candidates have dropped the ball in not explaining where the money is going to come from after they cut property taxes.

Mayor Morgan decried the legislators who pass mandates with no understanding or concern for how it affects local spending.

Mayor Marks proposed a challenge to his fellow lawmakers and asked Assemblywoman Stender and Assemblyman Bramnick to craft a bill with him that would be bipartisan and acceptable to both parties and to the public, along with support from other co-sponsors.

When asked what he thought of the panel discussion, Senator Schluter told The Leader and The Times that it was a good discussion, but that history has told us that a special session of the Legislature will not work.

“It’s a waste of time; it’s a stall,” he said.

Assemblywoman Stender said that the legislature has discussed this issue and that she’s heard all of the ideas expressed on the panel before.

“The legislature has debated this before. I don’t see this as adding anything new, but I am willing to work with my colleagues on a resolution,” she said.

Scotch Plains resident Bruce Yaker, who was in the audience along with approximately 30 other citizens said, “A plan is a plan; some are pragmatic and some are idealistic, but what really matters is the character of the man behind the plan.”

He said that the real difference would come depending on who is elected the next governor. Gloria Yaker, his wife, said that the discussion was helpful in getting all of the different ideas on the table to educate the public about the options.

The discussion was filmed and will be aired by Comcast Channel 35 and distributed to other local TV stations and is available for viewing on the Leader/Times Internet site at www.goleader.com. For more information, the email address is editor@goleader.com.