OK, quiz time, folks.
What New Jersey governor signed legislation increasing three major taxes?
Had to be Jim “Toilet Paper Tax” Florio, right? After all, in 1990 he successfully pushed $2.8 billion in tax increases through the Legislature and gave birth to a powerful anti-tax movement in New Jersey that ultimately ran him out of office.
Nope. Wasn’t Florio.
Christine Whitman? Uh, no. She just borrowed money to run the state.
Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco? After all, he granted state workers a 9 percent increase in their pensions. He had to pay for that somehow. But alas, that pension hike was, in fact, unfunded, and we can’t accuse Donnie D of raising taxes.
Must have been Acting Gov. Dick Codey then, right? Another one of those high-spending Democrats. Codey even wanted to spend money improving conditions at state mental hospitals. But sorry, you Dem-haters. It wasn’t Codey.
Jim McGreevey then? Nope. He was otherwise engaged.
Conventional wisdom would then leave us with Jon Corzine. But no, he was too busy spending his own money.
And so, the governor who raised three major taxes in one year was none other than … the exalted, the charming, the revered and still immensely popular Gov. Thomas H. Kean. A Republican.
Kean, who turns 80 on April 21, was the subject of a deservedly glowing NJ.com feature over the weekend (http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/04/at_80_tom_kean_remains_relevant_as_ever.html#incart_2box_news_index.ssf). The story noted that Kean is still the most popular living former governor. The humble Kean noted in the piece that he had the good fortune to govern during good economic times (1982-1990). But the fact is, Thomas H. Kean governed with uncommon intelligence, charm – and courage.
In June 1982, after winning an election (against Florio) that remains the closest gubernatorial election in modern history, Kean signed legislation increasing the state income tax rate from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent, the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent and the gasoline tax by 2.5 cents per gallon.
And not only was there little outrage at the time, but Kean went on to win re-election in 1985 by the largest margin in state history.
Actually, Kean’s success in raising taxes isn’t all that surprising. As I mentioned above, times were good. The rabid anti-tax movement that was sparked by Florio and that continues to dominate New Jersey politics at every level had yet to be born. And like the smart politician he was and is, Kean raised the taxes early in his first term and got the pain out of the way upfront.
There’s another factor, too. As former state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein noted in the NJ.com piece, “It’s very hard to dislike Tom Kean.” Call it the power of personality.
No doubt, today’s Republicans would like to forget that it was one of their own who raised three major taxes. And today’s Democrats would be far too inclined to gloat. But the fact remains, if you ever want to win a bet with a New Jersey politician, ask him or her what governor raised three major taxes in one year.
Jim Perskie is the former editorial-page editor of The Press of Atlantic City. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.