Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Zarate On Property Tax Rebates: Ever the Hustle

Here is a column by my friend, Vince Zarate, that was just published in The Trentonian, a local daily New Jersey paper published in tabloid format. Vince was a State House reporter for the leading state daily, the Star Ledger, covering insurance issues, budget matters, and a host of other topics for the paper for many years. He is now retired and living in Bordentown, periodically writing an always witty column for The Trentonian. A list of his recent columns can be found here, or by going to the paper's home page, and simply typing Zarate in the search bar for the paper.

Here in New Jersey we have a gubernatorial election this fall which, along with Virginia, may be a first bell-weather indicator of the emerging state of the American political landscape in the wake of Democrat dominance in the 2008 Presidential and congressional races. Here in Democrat-leaning New Jersey, Governor Corzine, a Democrat, is having considerable political popularity difficulties, with the Republican candidate, former federal prosecutor Chris Christie, continuing to lead Corzine in the polls. The Quinnipiac University Poll out today even showing an increase in Christie's lead to 12 points, notwithstanding continuing popularity of President Obama (60%) in the state. He will be in New Jersey a lot this fall.

Here is Vince's take on the so-called "property tax relief" program, which has been a political football in the State since it's inception over thirty years ago. At the time, former Governor Brendan Byrne -- who had enacted the state's unpopular income tax in his first term -- was running for re-election in 1977, and engineered the delivery of everyone's property tax rebate checks in late October in an envelope with a return address clearly marked, from the "Office of the Governor."

The ploy worked and Byrne was re-elected.

But this year may prove quite different. During his campaign for Governor, Jon Corzine promised to reduce property taxes "40 in 4" or, by 40% in four years. It was a risible lie at the time. Property taxes have instead increased by an average $1,300, according to some estimates. And this year, the Democrat controlled Legislature passed and the Governor signed a $29 billion dollar budget with huge tax increases.

As the New York Times writer, David W. Chen starkly put it in the opening graf of his budget adoption story at the end of June:
TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers passed a $29 billion budget largely along partisan lines on Thursday night that will increase taxes by almost $1 billion, eliminate property-tax deductions for the wealthiest residents and pare billions from health care, higher education and other programs.
Here is Vince Zarate's column:

N.J. Shenanigans Watch: The Old Rebate-Check Hustle
Published in The Trentonian: Monday, July 13, 2009

By VINCE ZARATE

One million taxpayers are going to get $1.1 billion in "property tax relief" checks just before the election, but it will not in any way, shape or form lower their property taxes — America’s highest.

So it goes with the old rebate-check hustle.

For 30 years now, politicians of both parties have been using rebate checks in an attempt to con folks into thinking they’re getting something for nothing.

Many caught on long ago that the state government's supposed generosity is an out-and-out fraud. The money for rebates comes out of the state income tax fund.

So the state government is "giving" taxpayers a rebate paid with the taxpayers' own dollars!

Pretty slick, eh?

The new state budget calls for 1 million checks, between $700 and $1,300 each, to be sent out to folks with taxable incomes under $75,000.

These checks are deceptively pitched as "property tax relief." The checks are said to be the state’s way of helping people cope with confiscatory local property taxes.

Ironically, those would be the very same local property taxes that politicians in Trenton have been promising to lower year after year — even as those taxes have gone right on skyrocketing year after year.

The rebate-check hustle was instituted way back in 1976 along with the state’s income tax to make that dreaded levy — which has since been hiked on multiple occasions — more palatable.

Ever since then, governors have been using the rebate check scam to prop up their own wobbling political fortunes — to pretend that they're Santa while their party cohorts in the legislature play the role of Santa's elves.

In the governor’s office, Jolly old Jon is touting the rebate checks as "real property tax relief" for the state’s most vulnerable. (By "most vulnerable" he means those most likely to support the ticket of his party.)

Behind the facade of this charade, however, is the never-mentioned reality that high property taxes are directly linked to the demands of unionized public employees — especially members of the powerful N.J. Education Association. (The very mention of the letters "NJEA" makes Garden State politicians break out in a cold sweat and start to tremble.)

A second never-mentioned reality is how the state has rendered local school elections meaningless and thereby denied local voters the means of controlling school costs.

And a third never-mentioned reality is how state-issued edicts have guaranteed that school costs will rise a minimum of 4 percent a year, driving up local property taxes.

The rebate hustle, in short, gives the Guv the opportunity to go around acting like St. Nick with a bag full of the taxpayers’ dollars.

As for property tax relief, well, as old St. Nick says: “Ho, ho, ho!”

Retired reporter Vince Zarate of Bordentown covered the N.J. State House for the Star-Ledger. He’s looking forward to finding a rebate check in his stocking by the fireplace.

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