Campaign to reform tax system starts

Politicians push for grass-roots movement to support constitutional convention bills in Legislature.

By: Mark Moffa
   WASHINGTON — Township Committeeman Jack Mozloom and state Sen. Peter Inverso last week announced a grass-roots campaign to rally support for a bipartisan Senate bill. The bill calls for a state constitutional convention to reform the entire local property tax system.
   At a press conference April 17, Sen. Inverso, a Republican whose district includes much of Mercer County, joined with William Dressel, New Jersey State League of Municipalities executive director, to call for the convention.
   Mr. Mozloom and Kathryn Lambert, a Hamilton Township school board member, are running as Republicans for Mercer County freeholder seats.
   Sen. Inverso previously sponsored a bill calling for a convention to review the school tax portion of local property taxes. He dropped that bill to support one sponsored by Democratic Sen. John Adler and Republican Sen. Robert Martin that calls for a review of the entire system.
   "The entire local tax levy has been impacted by the governor’s call to freeze municipal aid to the towns in my district and statewide," Sen. Inverso said. "While I understand the need to balance the budget, it is clear we must develop alternative methods of funding local services and education to avoid this kind of property tax impact in the future."
   The bill sponsored by Sens. Adler and Martin is S-478. The companion bill in the Assembly is A-540. That bill’s primary sponsors are Democrats Joseph Roberts and Linda Greenstein and Republican George Geist.
   Mr. Dressel said the League of Municipalities is trying to get every municipality in the state to support placing a question on this November’s ballot asking voters if they want a convention. So far, 180 of the state’s 566 municipalities have done so.
   He said New Jersey’s tax system relies too heavily on property taxes. Sales and income taxes, he said, are more fair than property taxes because the value of the land a person owns does not necessarily reflect a person’s ability to pay taxes.
   Mr. Dressel said the league supported Democratic Gov. Jim Florio in the early 1990s when he attempted to change the state’s tax system.
   "That whole tax plan basically became extremely controversial," he said. Gov. Florio lost his re-election bid to Republican Christie Whitman.
   "There was very little time spent, quite frankly, on selling the proposal." Mr. Dressel said.
   He said Gov. Florio’s plan was modeled after recommendations in a late-1980s report from the State Local Expenditure Revenue Policy Commission, or SLERP.
   The report suggested the state raise $3 billion in revenue from new taxes and that it should use this money to reduce local property tax burdens, Mr. Dressel said.
   "It was applying the sales tax, in essence, to things that traditionally have not been taxed," Mr. Dressel said. The commission also recommended the state raise income taxes.
   "He (Gov. Florio) proposed to raise taxes along the lines of the SLERP report," Mr. Dressel said. But it was never explained to the state’s residents, he said, proving to be a "public relations disaster."
   Gov. Whitman promoted the consolidation of local governments and the formation of interlocal service agreements, Mr. Dressel said. He said that while the league supported these initiatives as well, Gov. Whitman’s plans never would have produced the reform that is needed.
   While New jersey residents wait to see what Gov. James McGreevey will do, he said, the effects of Gov. Florio’s poor public relations tactics still are being felt. Mr. Dressel said politicians are afraid to raise taxes.
   "We’re concerned that they do not want to deal with the matter," Mr. Dressel said. "(But) other states have other taxes that we do not have."
   He said the fact that more school budgets were rejected last week than since 1994 is significant.
   "Voters in 34 percent of the districts voting rejected the budget," Mr. Dressel said. "We have interpreted that as being kind of a mandate that the voters want change."
   Mr. Mozloom said he wants to form a "citizen’s army" of people to get involved at the neighborhood level with petitions for the constitutional convention.
   "New Jersey has the worst property tax system in the country," he said. "People are frightened of the property tax crisis in New Jersey."
   Mr. Mozloom said he has seen a "startling number" of "For Sale" signs in Washington and that he has spoken with many people who are moving out of the township due to its high property tax rate.
   He said it is not fair to blame the school board entirely for the skyrocketing school taxes. The state’s system is the true culprit, he said.
   "To my knowledge, this is the first grass-roots effort for this in the state," he said.
   Mr. Mozloom said any residents interested in helping with the effort should e-mail NJTaxReformConvention@Hotmail.com.