Does Christie Finally Have a Winning Property Tax Message ?

If he does, he may still win after all. If not, my prediction last night of a three-to-five point Corzine victory remains operative.

The foundation for such a message emerged from Christie’s appearance before the Star-Ledger editorial board on Monday, described in Paul Mulshine’s blog column yesterday afternoon. The following is the link to the column and an accompanying video of Christie at the editorial board:

http://blog.nj.com/njv_paul_mulshine/2009/10/christie_on_property_taxes.html

A word is in order about Christie’s appearance at the editorial board from a stylistic point of view.

Chris Christie is an ethical and highly moral person of enormous passion, determination, and self-confidence. Unfortunately, due to these same good qualities, he is often wrongfully perceived by television viewers as being angry, arrogant, and pugnacious.

The Chris Christie in the Star-Ledger editorial board meeting was engaging, relaxed, smiling, and even witty. Voters would be far more inclined to vote for this Christie than the unsmiling Christie they saw in the first debate last Thursday night.

Of greater relevance to the election outcome, however, were the substantive responses that Christie made to Paul Mulshine’s questions on state education aid. For many years, Mulshine has accurately written about the inequitable and inadequate distribution of state aid to suburban school districts, resulting in their having to raise property taxes to adequately fund their public schools.

The underfunding of suburban school districts is a direct result of the New Jersey Supreme Court 1990 Abbott v. Burke decision, which requires certain urban districts to be funded at the same level as the “lighthouse districts”, the wealthiest districts in the state. A direct consequence of this ruling is that urban school districts are receiving a far greater share of aid than suburban school districts from the State Property Tax Relief Fund, which consists of the proceeds from the New Jersey Income Tax.

Conservatives like me view the Abbott v.Burke decision as an archetypal example of Supreme Court justices “legislating from the bench” rather than restricting themselves to interpreting the law, in this case the “thorough and efficient system of free public schools” clause in Article VIII, Section IV of the New Jersey Constitution. In order to implement a more fair distribution of state school aid to urban and suburban school districts alike, it will be necessary to either amend the New Jersey Constitution or appoint “strict constructionist” justices to replace the present members of the court as opportunities arise.

Given the virtual impossibility of getting legislative approval to place such an amendment on the ballot, a pledge to appoint such “strict constructionists” is a far more plausible alternative for Chris Christie. He seemed to embrace this approach in his debates with Steve Lonegan during the Republican primary. Since then, however, I have not heard any discussion by him of the need to appoint justices who will not legislate from the bench – until Monday’s Star-Ledger editorial board meeting.

At first, Christie responded to Mulshine’s questions by discussing the possibility of persuading the Supreme Court to allow a change in the current education funding formula to permit suburban school districts to receive a larger share. He asserted that this could be done by pointing out to the Court levels of high achievement in the Abbott districts unrelated to the degree of funding. The possibility of so persuading the Supreme Court seems to me to be at best wishful thinking and at worst chimerical.

As the video of the editorial board comes to an end, however, we hear Christie say “I’m going to change the Supreme Court.”

Is Chris Christie about to communicate to voters a pledge to appoint strict constructionist Supreme Court justices who will allow the Legislature to provide for a more fair distribution of aid to suburban school districts?

If so, he may have even at this late date the foundation for a winning message on property taxes. I hope so.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

Does Christie Finally Have a  Winning Property Tax Message ?