Forcing the issue: the coming clash over property tax caps

TRENTON – The property tax cap clash features Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) on one side with his proposal of a statutory 2.9% cap on property taxes – and Gov. Chris Christie’s 2.5% constitutional hard cap, a collision that will likely result in some kind of amalgam.

The question is which combination will prevail – or ultimately get vetoed with the point made for one side or the other?

Over the course of a special session demanded by the governor and set to begin tomorrow, Democrats will oppose Christie’s cap, and the governor will veto Sweeney’s, setting up a second encounter between Democratic legislature and Republican governor. 

“Under no circumstances can this state become California,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees) of a state living with a constitutional cap. “People won’t tolerate it.”

Deprived of the voter-approval version he favors, sources say Christie intends to back a toughened version of the statutory cap, which would force some Democratic exceptions – maybe healthcare – to live under a cap.

“The exceptions don’t work,” said state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove). “Lets tackle real proprty tax reform. Bottom line is this is the first time ever that both parties are engaged. Whether it’s 2.9 or 2.5%, the governor has brought this dynamic topic.”

In anticipation of the governor’s compromise, Greenwald said, “He’s coming to an understanding that no way will there be a constitutional amendment.”

In a second expectation, the Democratic assemblyman said he’s happy to defend healthcare as an exception to what should be included under a cap, pointing out that even in the private sector there are cap exemptions for healthcare. 

The GOP play will be to challenge Dems to vote on their harder edged statutory cap and use what they expect will be the majority party’s resistance to the changes as their fall and 2011 argument for why the Democratic Party can’t accept reform.  

But sources say that if they can keep certain exceptions like healthcare in a statutory compromise, Assembly Democrats are prepared to drive Christie’s proposed 2.5% cap to 2.0% – forcing Christie to explain why he won’t agree to a lower cap percentage and protect flexibility for worker healthcare.

Timing figures into Christie’s play with the constitutional cap. It would require voter approval, and July 7th – next week – is the deadline for November ballot issues. After hearings on Christie’s cap, sources say Sweeney plans to call for a quick kill on the floor – then prolong a summer debate on a statutory cap, figuring he doesn’t have to rush to meet a deadline. 

But Christie will try to force the issue, attempting rapid reaction from Democrats, who in turn, intend to force their issue.

Forcing the issue: the coming clash over property tax caps