N.J. Panel to Weigh In on Constitutional Convention

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Momentum is gathering in New Jersey to accomplish what many have tried without success to do: lower local property taxes, which rank among the nation’s highest. But leading education activists fear that the effort could backfire and lead to cuts in school spending.

By the end of this year, a task force assembled by state leaders is expected to recommend that citizen-delegates gather to rewrite the New Jersey Constitution and cut the taxes on which public education so heavily depends. What mix of revenue would be tapped to pay for schools, and at what level, are open questions.

Education leaders who support New Jersey’s high levels of per-pupil funding worry that a constitutional convention could rewrite the phrasing on which its finance system now rests: the guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education.

The Garden State spent more than $10,000 per pupil on average in 2001-02, the second-highest level in the nation.

Those who advocate the preservation of exceptionally high levels of funding in the state’s 31 poorest school districts are among the most worried. The state supreme court mandated in 1998 that the poorest districts in New Jersey be able to spend on a par with the richest, reasoning that such a structure was necessary to fulfill the constitution’s guarantee for those needy districts’ children.

“This convention could turn out to be a Trojan horse,” said David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which represents the poor schoolchildren in ongoing litigation known as Abbott v. Burke.

“It’s designed to talk about property taxes, but there is no limit on its mandate,” he said. “The next thing you know, they could be putting spending caps on education into the constitution.”

Unresolved Issues

That fear has driven Mr. Sciarra’s group and others, including the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Education Association, to urge that the convention allow only discussion of what mix of revenues should fund government services, not how that money is spent.

Others believe that restricting the scope of the convention would amount to a “gag rule” that would hobble the attempt to address problems on both sides of a troublesome equation: how revenue is raised, and how it is spent.

“An intellectually honest convention should have the ability to discuss issues related to the property-tax burden both for revenue and expenditures,” said Sen. Leonard Lance, the Republican minority leader in New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled Senate. He is a member of the task force charged with advising the legislature on a possible convention and its scope.

While debate is already lively, a constitutional convention couldn’t convene until 2006.

First, it must be approved by voters in November 2005. But, to get on the ballot, the legislature must accept at least some of the task force’s recommendations, which are due Dec. 31. Legislation authorizing a convention would have to be signed by acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, the state Senate president who stepped into the chief executive’s job because of the resignation of Gov. James E. McGreevey, a fellow Democrat.

John Shure

The fact that New Jersey’s property taxes and its local contribution to school funding are among the highest in the nation makes its situation particularly difficult, said Jon Shure, the president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a research group in Trenton that has examined the issue of property taxes.

A report by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed that in New Jersey, local revenue accounts for nearly 54 percent of public school funding, a greater share than in all but five other states.

Property taxes make up 98 percent of the state’s locally generated revenue—in contrast to an average of 74 percent in other states, according to the New Jersey Coalition for the Public Good, a Trenton-based nonprofit group that convened a citizens’ “tax assembly” to evaluate alternative tax structures.

“No state relies more than New Jersey does on property taxes to pay for schools and services,” Mr. Shure said.

Shifting that reliance to other sources without raising taxes overall would be hard, as New Jersey already has a 6 percent sales tax and a state-income-tax structure that allows few deductions, Sen. Lance said.

The Best Path?

The prospect of having convention delegates decide taxing and funding formulas for schools is making some education advocates edgy. They believe those decisions should be made in a special session of the legislature.

“When you get into having to create a school funding formula, that’s complicated stuff. It takes extreme expertise,” said Lynne Strickland, the executive director of the Garden State Coalition, a group representing suburban school districts. “There is too much margin to harm public education.”

Two previous constitutional conventions, in 1947 and 1966, were not asked to deal with property taxes. Multiple attempts to tackle the subject in the legislature have failed. Some people greet the possibility of a convention as a chance to improve the system.

“If we don’t have a convention, we’ll never do in the legislature the work that is necessary to bring New Jersey into line with other states in terms of a fair tax system,” said Sen. John H. Adler, a Democratic member of the convention task force.

Sen. John H. Adler

He hastened to add, however, that he believes a convention should discuss only revenues, not expenditures. But some observers believe it is unlikely that any property-tax revisions will survive legislative scrutiny and make it onto the statewide ballot unless those revisions address both.

The law that set up the task force does not restrict the scope of a possible convention, and public testimony taken by the panel around the state this fall showed a “very strong difference of opinion” on what its scope should be, said Carl E. Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N. J., and the task force’s chairman.

To some, moving toward potential improvement is better than preserving the status quo.

“At some point, we have to do something in this state,” Mr. Shure said. “We need to gamble on democracy, that it might do the right thing, rather than sit back and wait for the governor and the legislature to deal with this.”

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Pages 20, 24

Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as N.J. Panel to Weigh In on Constitutional Convention
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