Gimmicky StayNJ bill favors wealthy taxpayers over struggling seniors

June 10, 2023 8:00 am

The solution to making New Jersey more affordable is not to award big tax breaks only to senior citizens and give most of the money to the wealthy. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Yes, New Jersey’s property taxes are too high.

No, the solution is not to award big tax breaks only to senior citizens and give most of the money to people who own pricey property.

Yet that’s what some Democrats in the Legislature want to do, with their gimmicky StayNJ bill, one proposed less than three weeks ago but already sailing through the Legislature.

The bill is at the center of a fight between legislative leaders — Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, whose idea it was, and Senate President Nicholas Scutari, who backs it — and Gov. Phil Murphy. Murphy administration officials have been trashing the plan as one the state can’t afford, and their unusual amount of public criticism of it has led to some agita as a deadline to approve a new budget nears. The Legislature and Murphy must agree on a spending plan by July 1, or else state government shuts down.

There are multiple issues with the SaveNJ bill, starting with its lack of income limits. If it becomes law, Murphy and his wife — who made about $5 million in 2021 — could be in line for a $10,000 tax cut (they pay about $179,000 in property taxes on their Middletown mansion). They don’t need it, nor do the tens of thousands of other millionaires who call the Garden State home.

Next problem: SaveNJ is strictly for property taxpayers, which excludes renters. Census figures put the 65-and-up renter population at about 230,000. That’s a lot of folks also struggling to afford New Jersey’s high cost of living who are being ignored.

Sorry, no, they’re not being ignored. Asked about renters on WPIX this week, Coughlin noted that last year’s Anchor property tax rebate program offers $450 for qualifying renters.

“My plan would increase that by $50,” Coughlin said.

Fifty whole dollars more a year! My parents pay $50 monthly on top of their rent so their dog can live in their West Orange apartment.

Peter Chen is senior policy analyst at progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. Their analysis of SaveNJ shows the wealthiest 20% of homeowners would get 40% of SaveNJ’s benefits, and the bottom 20% would get 5%, he told me.

“People with the most should not be getting more,” Chen said. “People with the least should be getting it instead.”

Chen noted a recent Census survey indicates 1 in 5 seniors who rent say they are not caught up on rent, while 1 in 10 seniors overall are living in poverty.

“But the bulk of them are not going to get the benefit of this,” he said.

Judging by a legislative hearing yesterday, Coughlin has no qualms about moving ahead with a plan that would give Ice-T a $10,000 tax break on his $2.2 million Edgewater home, while my retired parents must settle for an Anchor payment that doesn’t pay for their dog’s rent.

Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer said she might support StayNJ if it had income limits for beneficiaries. In response, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin implied she doesn’t love senior citizens enough. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Adding to the ugliness, Coughlin is playing an ugly game here by suggesting if you don’t back this tax cut, you don’t back seniors.

Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer (R-Gloucester) told Coughlin Thursday she agrees that the state’s seniors need tax relief. Still, she asked whether the cost — $1.5 billion once the program is fully phased-in — could be brought down if we didn’t award tax breaks to the state’s wealthiest residents.

“If we put an income cap on it, we will (be) able to keep these numbers down in the budget … it would make it a lot more sustainable. But let’s get this money back to the people that really need it, and that’s our seniors that are lower income,” Sawyer said. “But when you’re talking $20,000 in property taxes, you’re more than middle-class.”

Coughlin’s response to Sawyer’s cogent comment? He loves senior citizens.

“The truth of the matter is that this is designed to include all seniors. All seniors, as I talked about in my opening remarks, contribute greatly to their communities, they contribute greatly to the state. Having them here makes a big deal difference,” Coughlin said.

When Sawyer told him she is indeed committed to helping seniors who are struggling financially, Coughlin told her she can prove her commitment … by voting for his bill.

You’re with him, or you hate senior citizens.

I have no doubt Coughlin and other supporters of this bill see a benefit in approving tax breaks for seniors before November’s legislative races, not to mention in 2025, when Democrats will be campaigning to hold onto the governor’s mansion for a third consecutive term.

But I wonder if they’ve thought of what happens when the cash the federal government has showered on New Jersey for years has finally dried up, or when a recession hits and revenue plummets. Will they still think giving a tax break to Ice-T and New Jersey’s other millionaires is a good idea?


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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”