NJ Gov Race: Taxes, Taxes, Taxes at GOP Debate

Taxes dominated the last Republican primary debate in the New Jersey governor's race, as both candidates sought distance from Gov. Chris Christie.

Kim Guadagno and Jack Ciattarelli. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

NEWARK — The dreaded tax man loomed over the final Republican primary debate between Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno on Thursday night, with both candidates vowing dramatic restructurings of the state’s finances while distancing themselves from Gov. Chris Christie.

In the home stretch before the June 6 gubernatorial primaries, Ciattarelli and Guadagno have been trading increasingly tougher attacks over their records and platforms. And the debate hosted by NJTV and NJ Spotlight was a fiery, wonky continuation in which Ciattarelli threw around words like “lies” and “hypocrisy” while Guadagno scolded and jabbed the assemblyman.

At the heart of the debate was a long colloquy about the best way to lower the state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes, consistently the top issue for New Jersey voters. And even after moderator Michael Aron changed the subject, the Republicans kept coming back to taxes on question after question.

Guadagno argued once again that an “audit of Trenton” would be one of the primary funding sources for her “circuit breaker” property tax plan, the central plank of her campaign. That plan, if enacted, would institute a new credit of up to $3,000 against residents’ property tax bills. But since she first unveiled the plan, Ciattarelli has questioned how Guadagno would fill the $1.5 billion annual hole in the $35 billion state budget that her credits would create.

“It is based on false savings and phantom revenues,” Ciattarelli said, noting that state Treasurer Ford Scudder just this week announced a $527 million revenue shortfall in the $35 billion state budget, nearly a month and a half before the end of the fiscal year. He said the Christie-Guadagno years had brought the state 11 credit-rating downgrades due to fiscal recklessness.

“It is an irresponsible plan,” he said. “It is a promise that can’t be kept.”

Guadagno said she is confident the money is there. And she stressed that state residents need tax relief pronto. Ciattarelli’s plan to rewrite the state’s school funding formula, although worth pursuing, would have to be vetted for years in the Legislature and the courts before it could see the light of day, she said.

“The most important thing is we help the people who need the help most while we take all of the time it’s going to take to fix the school funding formula,” she said.

In addition to savings from her audit, Guadagno said her plan would be funded by cutting health benefits for state employees (something public worker unions oppose), forcing municipalities to share services (something mayors oppose), and natural state revenue growth (something that now mostly goes toward pensions and health benefit costs every year).

“We can do it if we have the will to do it,” she said. “We don’t have time to wait for people who need that help now.”

In turn, she seized on Ciattarelli’s call to increase taxes on households that bring in over $750,000 in annual income, something that she says would hike taxes in New Jersey by $600 million at a time when people can barely afford to stay in-state.

Ciattarelli cried foul. The tax hikes on wealthy earners would be coupled with dramatic reductions on other ends, such as abolishing the inheritance tax and phasing out the corporate business tax over 10 years.

And he accused the lieutenant governor of hypocrisy. Responding to Aron at one point, Guadagno said she would never raise any tax in New Jersey (a promise once made and then broken by her current boss). But Ciattarelli pointed out that Guadagno has endorsed a return to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program premised on a carbon tax.

“We have to admit that we have a climate problem,” she said. “I worked on Sandy, Jonas, Irene, 17 different snowstorms. I am not a climate denier and never will be but we have to do something to respond.”

She added, “If you lived on the Jersey Shore like I do and you saw your neighbors on both sides wiped out, you know that we need to have a diversified response.”

Despite their fair share of disagreements, both candidates had some carbon-copy views. They spent parts of the night playing the “who is least like Chris Christie” game. They both said New Jersey cannot condone sanctuary cities. Each agreed that the state’s strict concealed-carry handgun restrictions must be loosened. They both want to see marijuana decriminalized, but not fully legalized as the Democratic candidates do.

And behind the sharp facades, in terms of school funding, they both want a plan that redistributes aid from Jersey City and Hoboken (Democratic cities) to places like Parsippany and Freehold (Republican areas).

Running in a post-Bridgegate world, Guadagno has pledged to change New Jersey law so that voters, not the governor, select the state attorney general. Ciattarelli was having none of it.

“In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 800,000, I can’t think of a worse idea,” he said. “Are we now going to have an attorney general who’s indebted to the party bosses?”

Guadagno said that she understood “exactly what the problem is,” but she added that “states all over the country have been doing this on a regular basis, 43 of them.” Voters, she said, more than politicians, are equipped to make the right choice.

With the national conversation focused on possible changes to the Affordable Care Act, it was somewhat surprising that neither candidate was asked to weigh in on health care. The House GOP passed the American Health Care Act earlier this month, which could strip Medicaid from 500,000 New Jersey residents if enacted.

Disapproval from both candidates rained on the unpopular sitting governor, especially on a costly plan to renovate the state house and a deal Christie struck with Democrats in the Legislature last year to boost the state’s gas tax 23 cents per gallon.

Ciattarelli asked Guadagno why she didn’t veto the bill in her capacity as acting governor while Christie was out of state. She said that that would be undermining the governor and was not an appropriate maneuver.

“That’s not what the constitution intends,” she said. “When you start to talk like that, Jack, it really does cross the line.”

When asked if either would pick the other as a running mate, both said they had not considered the prospect. (And it’s unlikely Guadagno would even want the same job after years in Christie’s shadow.)

Shortly before the debate, Christie was spotted leaving the Newark building where NJTV has its studio and he has an office. He quipped that he wouldn’t be watching.

NJ Gov Race: Taxes, Taxes, Taxes at GOP Debate