Talk of the Boardwalk

The New Jersey League of Municipalities held one of the first major events during the Atlantic City conference season, drawing a crowd to the seaside resort and offering an opportunity for politicians to offer election post-mortems.

The mere fact that the gathering occurred prompted local officials to express optimism about the region’s outlook. “We appreciate the economic impact that you continue to make on Atlantic City, and we missed it last year,” said Atlantic City Mayor Marty Smalls, during a League luncheon on Nov. 17. “AC is back, the League is back, and we’re truly excited to have the League here. We hope that it stays here for many years.”

COVID-19 business closures of casinos, entertainment venues, restaurants, event spaces and hotels – the biggest employers in the Atlantic City area – drove unemployment to over 26% last year, one of the nation’s highest jobless rates.

The League, which typically draws upwards of 14,000 attendees in mid-November, and the New Jersey Education Association, which held its convention earlier in the month, kick off the conference, convention and trade show season.

Traditionally, when the autumnal chill sends beachgoers and boardwalk strollers home, Atlantic City becomes a destination for conferences, conventions, trade shows and other large-scale events. The conference season in the resort town is an economic boon, ensuring a steady stream of visitors beyond beach season.

Other events this winter include the cheerleading competition Spirit Cheer 2022 which is slated to take place in early January with a projected turnout of 25,000. The Atlantic City Classic Car Show and Auction 2022 in February is expected to draw 30,000 attendees.

“Continue to enjoy our town – everything it has to offer. It’s only going to get better,” Smalls said.

But there was also political business to transact. State legislators from both major parties used the occasion to argue that the bruising defeats and narrow victories Democrats endured represent a voter mandate that over the course of the lame duck session they must address long-standing issues of taxation and the cost of living.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, won reelection in an unexpectedly close race against Republican former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. Murphy’s party lost six seats in the state Assembly and one in the Senate, giving the Democrats their narrowest majorities in nearly two decades.

Most shocking of all was the loss of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a powerbroker from South Jersey and the state Legislature’s most powerful member, to career truck driver Republican Ed Durr.

“I think no matter what stripe you wear, the electorate told us that affordability and also efficiency of government is essential, and things we need to be mindful of as state legislators,” Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th District, said during a Nov. 17 panel at the convention.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, agreed, saying that affordability needs to be “at the top” of what lawmakers focus on, meaning significant tax reform and “working for a plan that recognizes those shared middle-class values that we champion all the time.”

The state has some of the highest property taxes, income tax and corporate business tax rates in the nation. New Jersey imposes an 11.5% top corporate tax rate and a “millionaire’s tax” of 10.75% on every dollar earned above $1 million, one of the highest rates in the nation.

Two Republican leaders – Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick and Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, both Republicans from the 21st Legislative District – didn’t hold back those views during the discussion.

“The thing that I would like to focus on is … affordability and high property taxes. Those are the things that people across New Jersey sent a very strong message on,” said Kean, who is retiring from the legislature to reportedly take on U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski. Bramnick will move up to the state Senate as the next Senate GOP Leader.

How exactly the state brings about affordability and lowers taxes is a matter of fierce academic and political debate.

Bramnick, for example, argued that the state needs to rein in its annual budget expansions, though not necessarily by instituting the 2% cap limiting municipal budgets increases.

The most recent budget was $46 billion, while the first budget Murphy signed in 2018 was $37.4 billion, a nearly 23% increase.

“I think no matter what stripe you wear, the electorate told us that affordability and also efficiency of government is essential, and things we need to be mindful of as state legislators.”

– Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th District

“Unless you put Trenton on some sort of diet, we will continue to spend,” Bramnick said, which Singleton agreed with.

Kean floated the idea of a charitable deduction for state income taxes. On the campaign trail, Ciattarelli proposed cutting the corporate tax rate by half over the next five years, and the adoption of Delaware’s lenient corporate laws. He also promised major cuts from the state budget, but did not indicate what would be on the chopping block.

When Murphy’s turn to speak came up, he defended his progressive agenda and economic track record.

Making his first major public appearance since his victory, the governor defended his actions on the economy, the cost of living, the pandemic and taxes but offering no details on his next term or lame duck priorities.

“Make no doubt, this state is moving forward. I am committed to keep it pointed in this direction,” Murphy said at a luncheon on the convention’s third day. His remarks included at least 13 references to taxes.

“We have had – and not even arguably – the most successful efforts to date in providing real property tax relief to our residents,” the governor said.

“This is not abstract,” he continued. “The budgets our administration has enacted have contributed to three of the lowest year-over-year increases in property taxes on record and the slowest rate of property tax increases of any administration since the start of the millennium.”

In his March 2020 budget address, Murphy claimed that no governor in New Jersey history had done more to bring down property taxes. He did so again during his Thursday remarks.

“[O]ver our first term, we’ve invested more in property tax relief than in any other term in state history,” the governor said.

But other figures have arguably made significant contributions in that endeavor: Republican Gov. Chris Christie in enacting a 2% cap on local tax increases and Democratic Gov. Brendan Bryne enacted the income tax.

On the economy, Murphy cited the relocation of fintech giant Fiserv to Berkeley Heights — which state officials said would add 2,000 jobs — the HAX accelerator in Newark with a potential 2,500 jobs, Netflix’s interest in using the old Fort Monmouth army base as a film and TV production facility and the general growth of the film and TV industry.

“We have an incentive program that is focused on early-stage startup businesses, on innovation, and on entrepreneurship,” Murphy said. “We know how local government thrives on innovation and entrepreneurship, too. That’s one reason we fought so hard for this new focus – to ensure that our entire state was pointed in the same direction.”

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