Friday, December 15, 2017

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1. Introduction

Bridge in Trenton

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mvjantzen // CC BY-NC 2.0

New Jersey entered the current recession in a weakened fiscal and economic condition. With the state’s economy and revenues closely linked to Wall Street, the collapse of the financial sector and its aftershocks—rising unemployment and falling income—leave New Jersey facing “a historic revenue collapse, and the most significant downturn in its modern history,” according to the state’s treasurer.[1] The current recession is severe, but this fiscal dilemma is not new. The state has experienced structural deficits regularly over the past 20 years.[2]

In the fall of 2008, Governor Jon Corzine announced the state faced a $400 million deficit. By the spring, the shortfall swelled to $7 billion, with incoming revenues insufficient to cover the $33 billion FY 2009 budget. The state’s pension system is underfunded by $34 billion, and outstanding debt totals $45 billion, largely assumed in the last 15 years.

With the proposed FY 2010 budget, the governor announced savings were found with the help of $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars; $1 billion in tax increases, including a new income tax bracket of 10.75 percent on those earning over $1,000,000;[3] and $4 billion in spending cuts, including deferred payments to the state’s pension fund and furloughs for state employees (figure 1).[4]

Figure 1.

Figure 1

But, budget balance was temporary, and the scenario continued to worsen. In April 2009, revenue projections were $800 million lower than initially anticipated. Property tax rebates were canceled for those earning $75,000 or more (excepting the elderly and disabled). Property tax deductions for those earning over $250,000 were also canceled. In June, the treasury secured a $2 billion line of credit from J.P. Morgan Chase for the new fiscal year.[5] And, by June 30th, a balanced budget was announced. These measures have bought the state some time, but leave the underlying causes for New Jersey’s fiscal and economic crisis unaddressed. The state’s problems are likely to continue, if not worsen, in the near future.

Though the magnitude and depth of the current recession is unprecedented, New Jersey’s perennial budget shortfalls and the growth in taxation on all levels are the result of years of poor fiscal choices which have gradually weakened the state’s once strong economy. New Jersey is ranked 46th in economic freedom,[6] with the highest state and local tax burden in the nation, at close to 12 percent of average income.[7] New Jersey’s income tax is highly progressive, with a top bracket of 10.75 percent on income over $1,000,000. The corporate tax is a flat rate of 9 percent—the sixth highest in the nation. The sales tax is exemption-laden, leading the state to raise rates, most recently in 2006, from 6 to 7 percent. In addition, New Jersey levies many smaller taxes on services and activities. Between 2002 and 2007, the state created 102 small taxes and fees, all of which combine to create a narrow-base, high-rate system of tax. Property taxes have increased steadily over the past 30 years, averaging $6,787 per capita in 2008.[8] Since 2000, New Jersey has lost technology and information sector jobs and gained low-wage service sector jobs and public sector jobs. New Jersey’s population growth has slowed and out-migration has increased.

Increased taxation is meant to support public spending. Growth in New Jersey’s budget is driven, in theory, by citizen preference for a certain level of government services and the taxation necessary to support it. However, the government of New Jersey has resorted to fiscal evasion[9]—avoiding the rules meant to constrain spending—and has sustained spending growth through fiscal illusion,[10] obscuring the full costs of policies by relying on intergovernmental aid and debt to achieve the current level of spending. The state has long emphasized current spending at the expense of higher taxes for future taxpayers. The costs of this approach are now coming due.

In this paper we present a series of reforms based on the successful experience of other governments. We begin with a background discussion of the challenges New Jersey will face in implementing these reforms by reviewing the state of the state and the loss of the “Old-Time Fiscal Religion,” the foundation of public finance until the Keynesian revolution of the 1940s.[11] We explain the limits of public policy and government intervention. We explore the importance of inter-jurisdictional competition and direct democracy and conclude with recommendations for institutional and policy reforms.


[1] Adriene Lu, “New Jersey faces ‘historic’ tax-revenue drop,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 2009, http://www.philly.com/inquirer/local/nj/20090407_New_Jersey_faces__quot_historic_quot__tax-revenue_drop_1.html.

[2] According to the FY 2009 Budget Message, New Jersey’s budget has not been in structural balance (with recurring revenues matching recurring expenses) in 20 years. However, an analysis of budget data (see figure 2) shows that budget balance was achieved during some years in this period. Office of Management and Budget, “Budget in Brief,” State of New Jersey FY 2009 Budget (Trenton, February 26, 2008), 15, http://www.state.nj.us/budget09/budget_summary.pdf.

[3] The property tax deduction for non-seniors will be suspended this year. Taxes will be imposed on lottery earnings over $10,000. There will be a 25 percent increase on the tax on alcohol, a 12.5 cent increase on cigarette taxes, an extension of the 4 percent surcharge on the Corporation Business Tax that was set to expire, an increase in payroll taxes for unemployment benefits, and new fees for sportsman licenses.

[4] Furloughs were met with resistance with unionized workers initiating a lawsuit against the governor. The furloughs were ruled legal in April 2009.

[5] The full line of credit will cost $2.3 million for every $250 million borrowed. If all $2 billion is used, total interest will cost $18.4 billion. See John Reitmeyer, “Beefed-up taxpayer group weighs in on N.J. budget,” New Jersey Star Ledger, June 10, 2009, http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/jersey/index.ssf?/base/news-14/124460685050150.xml&coll=1.

[6] Jason Sorens and William P. Ruger, Economic Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom (Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center, 2009), 35.

[7] The Tax Foundation, “New Jersey’s State and Local Tax Burden 1977-2008,” http://www.taxfoundation.org/research/topic/44.html.

[8] Authors’ calculation. Does not include the property tax rebate. Average property taxes vary by county, ranging from an average of $10,380 per capita in Essex County to an average of $3,545 per capita in Cumberland County. See State of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, Division of Local Government Services, Property Tax Information data, http://www.nj.gov/dca/lgs/taxes/taxmenu.shtml.

[9] We define fiscal evasion as the avoidance of constitutional and legislative prohibitions on spending and debt. Evasion is accomplished through the design of weak budget rules, the lax enforcement of well-designed rules, and the weakening of accounting standards—enabling the government to systematically spend more than is collected in revenues. New Jersey is not the only state to depart from constitutional constraints on spending. According to Richard Briffault, “One of the most striking aspects of state constitutional law of state and local finance is the enormous gap between the written provisions of state constitutions and actual practice.” Richard Briffault, “State and Local Finance,” in State Constitutions for the Twenty-First Century, Volume 3, G. Alan Tarr and Robert F. Williams, eds. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 212.

[10] The successful evasion of budget rules is sustained by diluting the perceived cost of spending to voters. Spending growth has been partially obscured to the citizenry through the state’s reliance on debt and intergovernmental aid. These mechanisms encourage “fiscal illusion” by separating the source of revenue from the time and place in which spending occurs. Debt places the cost of projects on future taxpayers. Additionally, most of New Jersey’s debt was raised without voter approval, weakening the most direct check on spending—democratic voice. Intergovernmental aid spreads the cost of spending across a wider set of taxpayers (e.g., state income taxpayers) while concentrating spending benefits on particular groups or regions (e.g., local school districts), thus lowering the relative price of such spending to beneficiaries, and weakening accountability.

[11] See James M. Buchanan and Richard E. Wagner, Democracy in Deficit: The Political Legacy of Lord Keynes, The Collected Works of James Buchanan, 2nd ed., Vol.8 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1097&chapter=103137&layout=html&Itemid=27. “The history of both fiscal principle and fiscal practice may reasonably be divided into pre- and post-Keynesian periods. The Keynesian breakpoint is stressed concisely by Hugh Dalton, the textbook writer whose own political career was notoriously brief. In the post-Keynesian editions of his Principles of Public Finance, Dalton said: “The new approach to budgetary policy owes more to Keynes than to any other man. Thus it is just that we should speak of “the Keynesian revolution.” We may now free ourselves from the old and narrow conception of balancing the budget, no matter over what period, and move towards the new and wider conception of balancing the whole economy.”