When Bob Oppenheimer started selling houses in New Jersey 30 years ago, taxes didn’t elicit the guttural scorn from residents that they do these days.
Over the course of the Realtor’s career, he watched property taxes grow into the issue that entangles almost all other aspects of life in the Garden State — and into the king of all political albatrosses.
“Look, with taxes, I don’t think there’s an issue with paying for what you get,” says Oppenheimer, who is president of the 50,000-member New Jersey Realtors Association. “It’s how fast do they increase and what exactly are they funding.”
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Reigning in taxes now becomes the priority of Phil Murphy, the Democrat who won Tuesday in the race to succeed outgoing Gov. Chris Christie. Murphy defeated Kim Guadagno, the current Republican lieutenant governor, in the general election Tuesday.
It’s not his only task, however. After eight years of the bombastic and tumultuous Christie era, a clean break for Murphy means numerous opportunities and challenges.
Here a look ahead at the next four years.
A big part of Christie’s legacy is the confrontational approach he brought to the political arena, according to Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. This video of Christie arguing with a voter moments after he cast a vote on Election Day shows he is apparently leaving office the same way he held it.
Changing the culture of the governor’s office could be the first and easiest thing Murphy, a former Goldman Sacks executive, will do.
“Many New Jerseyans are looking for a change in the decorum of the office,” Harrison said. “That should be relatively easy for Gov.-elect Murphy to accomplish.”
End the Exodus
Plugging the loss of college graduates and retirees would be a trend-breaking success for Murphy that would come in large part from lessening the burden and perception of the state’s high taxes.
The damage done by multiple iterations of ineffectual politicians on taxes has led many residents to take an alternative route to voting, Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said.
“Voters have been telling us all along that property taxes are the number-one issue in the state and the number one issue why they want to leave in New Jersey,” Murray said. “And for many people, they have given up on solutions at the ballot box and voted with their feet.”
Schools and Teachers
Murphy has said he supports an education funding formula that includes an increase of $125 million for local school districts. What he or any of the state Democratic lawmakers who support the additional funding have not said is where it will come from.
Murphy has indicated he would support a millionaire’s tax. It means he’s willing to tax himself more. A millionaire’s tax has been on state Democrats’ wish list for years.
“They have been hankering for a millionaire’s tax for many, many years,” Harrison said. “Christie was unwilling to sign that for a few reasons: not wanting to raise taxes and believing it causes flight from the state. Murphy has said he would sign that.”
Still, it won’t solve New Jersey’s revenue ills, Harrison said.
That’s what Murphy will confront in January, and it will take political courage rarely seen in New Jersey to put a dent in the state’s property tax problem.
Solutions could include an increased sales tax, higher across-the-board income taxes, and the always difficult haggling with the powerful unions for state workers, teachers, police and firefighters.
Oppenheimer doesn’t see an easy path ahead, particularly in lessening the property tax burden while funding things like education and public pensions. He just hopes Murphy establishes a path early next year.
“We realize there is no immediate rectification of this issue, but we’d love to see a plan that maybe is five to seven years into the future that truly takes care of the issue,” he said. “We need someone who will come in and do what they need to do.”