The revenue situation in New Jersey continues to go from bad to worse, recalling that scene in the Wizard of Oz when the curtain was pulled back to reveal that the Wizard was not some omnipotent force with the power to render miracles, but really just a curmudgeonly old man pulling some fancy levers.
It was a disillusioning moment for Dorothy and company, much like the scene being played out in Trenton today.
The Chris Christie hype machine would like to have everyone believe that the Governor has single-handedly resuscitated New Jersey’s economy through the sheer force of his personality. If hyperbole alone could create jobs and stimulate economic growth then, no doubt, we would be in good hands.
Unfortunately that’s not the case.
Instead of being firmly on the road to the Governor’s self-described “comeback,” we are stuck, four years after the recession began, with an unemployment rate higher than the national average, dismal revenue returns for May that could put the shortfall for the current budget cycle at an additional $50-100 million, and predictions that the state could be anywhere from $676 million to $1.4 billion short through the next fiscal year.
Yet, despite these facts, the Governor is still trumpeting his plan for a ten percent across-the-board income tax cut.
This is a fool-hardy move for a number of reasons.
Regardless of which revenue forecaster you consult, it’s clear that New Jersey's economy is still in dire straits. It’s time for the Governor to be honest with people. We can’t spend money we don’t have.
Revenue collections are lower than they were five years ago. Towns and schools have suffered massive cuts in state aid during the first half of Christie’s tenure. And homeowners have seen an average 20 percent net rise in their property taxes over the last two years.
If we are going to honestly pursue any sort of tax cut, it needs to be in the form of relief from our most crushing and regressive tax – the property tax – and it needs to be directly targeted at the middle class and paired with a reliable revenue source - a surcharge on the income of millionaires.
We cannot, in good faith, support the Governor’s plan to spend roughly a billion dollars in revenue we don’t have to give a family of four earning $100,000 a tax break ($275) that would barely put a dent in their property tax bill, while giving millionaires a tax break ($7,265) that would cover the average homeowners entire property tax bill for the year.
While there has been talk of a compromise plan that would direct more relief at middle and lower income taxpayers, the current revenue situation is a death knell to any plan unless it is tied to a steady revenue source like a millionaire’s tax.
Through his scripted town hall meetings and YouTube moments, the Governor would like to have everyone believe he is the fiscal savior of West State Street, but Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman hit the nail on the head recently when he described Chris Christie, and his national Republican colleagues, as “fiscal phonies.”
In actuality, the Governor is no different than the predecessors he has lambasted.
Case in point: the Governor declared a false victory on property taxes in his State of the State Address so he could move on to proposing an income tax cut that will overwhelmingly benefit the rich; he has resorted to borrowing to fund the state’s transportation needs; and he has underfunded the state’s pension system much like his predecessors.
The fact of the matter is this game our governor is playing - name-calling while being tone deaf to the needs of the middle class, our college students and seniors, under the guise of attacking big government – is just getting old. The Governor has built this reputation by appealing to people's deepest fears and darkest instincts, pitting neighbor against neighbor during the Great Recession.
This kind of reckless policy-making is designed only to propel a politician to the next job, in this case the Vice Presidency, or the next election. Unfortunately, if the Governor does move on, the people of New Jersey will be left holding the tab like the victims of a bad, protracted date.
Residents are tired of being lied to and bullied. They deserve to know the truth. Now that the Governor’s playbook has slowly been exposed, it’s time to declare game over and try a new approach.
We can make the illusion of the Jersey Comeback a reality, but it starts with true consensus building and shared sacrifice, not Chris Christie’s stage version of the same.
This Wizard is no different than the one in Oz. And his theatrics are far less entertaining.
Barbara Buono represents New Jersey's 18th Legislative District in the New Jersey State Senate. She is a former Senate Majority Leader and Senate Budget Committee Chair.