Democrats are hoping a focus on affordability will help them retain majorities they've held in the Legislature for two decades. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey Democrats are looking to the state’s high cost of living as they campaign to keep the legislative majorities they’ve held in both chambers for two decades.
Since they unexpectedly lost one Senate and six Assembly seats in 2021, Democrats have moved to expand state tax relief programs and create new ones aimed at the state’s seniors, and they’re leaning on those programs as Republicans, who are closer now to majorities than they’ve been in 15 years, look to expand on recent legislative gains.
Those programs include Anchor, a property tax relief program that sends checks of up to $1,500 to New Jersey homeowners and $450 to renters, and the recently enacted — but still nascent — StayNJ program, which seeks to cut seniors property tax bills in half, to a cap of $6,500.
Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Somerset), who represents the 16th District, one of the state’s most competitive, is a prime sponsor of the latter program.
“I don’t think anyone has claimed the battle’s over. No one has claimed victory on an issue in New Jersey that’s been going on for decades, but we’ll find out whether people feel meaningful progress has been made, and that’s what elections are about,” Freiman said.
Lawmakers have also increased the size of Anchor awards for residents 65 and older by $250
“I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with seniors around the state in town halls where we’ve discussed StayNJ, expanded Anchor benefits for seniors, and increased assistance for prescription drugs,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said in a statement. “We listened to seniors and set priorities to address the issues that mattered most to them. They want to remain in the communities they built, near the families they love, with affordable health care.”
The economic focus could be a boon for Democrats, as taxes and other economic conditions routinely rank as voters’ top priority, said Ashley Koning, director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling. All 120 legislative seats are on the ballot this year.
But it remains unclear whether that focus will translate into electoral success with Assembly and Senate seats at the top of the ballot, especially given that economic messaging has been rarer from candidates on both sides this year than it was in past contests.
16th Legislative District candidates:
Richard Byrne (Libertarian)
Michael Pappas (R)
Sen. Andrew Zwicker* (D)
Mitchelle Drulis (D)
Assemblyman Roy Freiman* (D)
Ross Traphagen (R)
Grace Zhang (R)
“Whether or not that translates into the legislative races this year, I think, is something that remains to be seen just because a lot of the narrative we’ve seen so far this cycle has been surrounding these culture war issues that have bubbled up,” Koning said.
It’s also unclear whether New Jerseyans have taken note of the bumped-up rebates, but Republicans say Democrats are certainly hoping they do.
The Division of Taxation in August announced residents who had received an award through Anchor in the spring would receive another Anchor rebate by Nov. 1, less than a week from Election Day, timing Republican lawmakers saw as more than coincidental.
Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris), the chamber’s minority leader, said you “don’t need to be a rocket scientist” to figure out that sending out the checks now is designed to help the Democratic Party.
“Come on, if you believe it isn’t, I’ve got a bridge I can sell you,” he said.
An administration spokesperson in August denied that the updated award timeline — which will persist in future years — is politically motivated.
Republicans’ attacks have left some Democratic lawmakers scratching their heads and asking if the opposition would prefer to leave tax relief on the table.
“I think it’s absurd. Our job is to help people out, and that’s what we’re doing. Offering these property tax programs, these relief programs — making life easier is what we should do,” Freiman said. “I’m not sure where they’re coming from when they’re making these arguments.”
19th Legislative District candidates:
Maria Garcia (R)
Sen. Joe Vitale* (D)
Marilyn Colon (R)
Sam Raval (R)
David Diez (Libertarian)
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin* (D)
Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez* (D)
Republicans say the Democratic position is belied by some of the party’s other tax policies, like the Democratic refusal to divert federal funds to replenish the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund. Such a move would’ve headed off an automatic tax increase on businesses to replenish the fund, which was depleted by staggering unemployment in the pandemic’s early months.
But Democrats have offered some relief to businesses as well and are poised this year to allow a 2.5% surtax on business profits above $1 million to expire despite complaints from progressives and some others who say that money should be used to keep NJ Transit from hurtling over the $1 billion fiscal cliff it faces in coming years.
New Jersey has a long and storied record of bipartisan fiscal mismanagement. Governors of both parties beginning with Gov. Christine Todd Whitman regularly shirked the state’s pension obligations, ballooning New Jersey’s debt over a quarter century.
Gov. Chris Christie took steps to start paying down those obligations, but the state only resumed making full pension payments under Gov. Phil Murphy. The current administration’s pension payments nearly triple the combined payments made by the preceding six governors.
Still, Republicans have pointed to the state’s debt as a sign of New Jersey’s flailing finances. Truth in Accounting, a fiscal accountability think tank, recently found New Jersey had the highest per-capita debt in the nation. Only Connecticut and Illinois, which have its own sordid record of pension mismanagement, came close.
The state’s property taxes remain the highest in the nation.
“You have to make New Jersey more affordable,” Bucco said. “So many of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, and you want to give people some hope and a reason to stay here. You have to provide them with an understanding that you’re going to do something to stop this never-ending tax increase that’s coming out of Trenton all the time.”
Election Day is Nov. 7.
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