Amick: Christie administration fiscal transparency clouding up over time

Chris Christie couldn’t have made it clearer.

“New Jersey has for too long engaged in a practice of disjointed financial reporting and inadequate fiscal transparency,” he proclaimed in an executive order. However, he continued, “fiscal transparency is an important priority of this administration.”

Among other directives in his order was one to his Treasury Department to create a website with data that “shall make meaningful comparisons, such as comparing the spending practices, tax policies and tax rates of similarly situated states, school districts and municipalities.”

The date was Jan. 20, 2010, one day after Christie took the oath as governor for his first term.

Times have changed, however — and so, apparently, have Christie’s priorities. Here’s what’s happened:

A few months after issuing the executive order, the GOP governor joined with the Democratic Legislature in setting a 2 percent cap on increases in local property taxes. The law has been quite successful in stabilizing tax rates, something of which Christie has boasted while hailing the bipartisan cooperation that produced it.

But rate stabilization wasn’t the full story. A more detailed picture was provided by NJ Spotlight. Using information from transparent state websites of the kind Christie had ordered, the independent online publication concluded that net property taxes (actual taxes minus state-financed rebates to qualifying property owners) rose 18.6 percent in the governor’s first three years in office, compared to just 6 percent under the former governor, Jon Corzine.

The reason? Christie has slashed and delayed rebate payments in an effort to match state spending to the revenues that he has consistently overestimated.

After the real record of property-tax increases under Christie – and its unfavorable comparison with the record of his much-disparaged predecessor – were published, the administration responded by deleting the town-by-town information on property-tax rebates that had been posted on the state’s website for the previous 15 years.

In the spring of 2014, the Christie administration published its property-tax tables for the first time without any rebate numbers, to prevent reporters from calculating net property-tax increases, according to NJ Spotlight’s Mark Magyar. When NJ Spotlight used 2012 statewide average rebate numbers, which would have been the same as 2013’s, to compare net property-tax increases under Christie to Corzine, “the Christie administration went into its database and deleted all of its rebate and net property-tax data from 2008, including the last two years of data from the Corzine administration,” Magyar wrote.

Out the window with all this information went the opportunity for New Jersey taxpayers to make those “meaningful comparisons” among “tax policies and tax rates of similarly situated … school districts and municipalities” that Christie had considered so important back on Day 2 of his governorship.

The next move was the Assembly’s. On Sept. 29, it approved A3223, a bill sponsored by Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and others, which would require the state to resume posting data that would show the annual growth of net property taxes.

The bill’s stated purpose echoed Christie’s own rationale for his executive order. It was to illustrate to the public “that local spending decisions directly affect local property taxes” and “help local property taxpayers compare how well their local units of government are doing against local units in other parts of the state.”

The measure passed the Assembly 73-0. A Senate version, S2056, has been introduced by Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), but hasn’t yet been scheduled for committee action.

What will happen if and when the Senate ultimately approves the bill and sends it to Christie’s desk? No one’s saying, but recent history provides some clues.

The governor has a record of vetoing measures that he once favored but that he later decided would offend the conservative Republican voters he’ll need if he seeks the presidency (see last year’s proposed ban on Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifles) or, as in this case, that can be interpreted as a rebuke to him (see this year’s “Sandy Bill of Rights,” designed to improve transparency — that word again — in the distribution of federal storm aid). It’s not unreasonable to suspect that he’ll also veto A3223/S2056 if he gets the chance.

The Republicans in the Legislature also have a record – a record of refusing to help the Democrats achieve the two-thirds supermajority they need in each chamber to override a veto. So firm is Christie’s hold on his legislative minions that not once in his nearly five years in office has he lost such a vote, even though in many of those cases Republicans ended up killing measures they’d originally voted for.

In short, a bill — A3223 — that 30 Republican Assembly members supported three weeks ago can’t count on even seven GOP votes if it returns to them with a Christie veto. Fiscal transparency? Not so important, after all.

Original article