By Jean Stanfield
Two of the most important financial support programs New Jersey provides are the Homestead Benefit and the Senior Freeze. They are also often the first programs governors target with cuts to balance budgets.
This year, due to the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19, Governor Phil Murphy decided to push back adopting the state’s annual budget by three months and passed a supplemental spending plan for the months June to September. New Jersey was the only state in the nation to do this.
The abrupt change in schedule brought little attention and fanfare to the supplemental budget, so when the Homestead Benefit and Senior Freeze were stripped of all their funding, there wasn’t nearly as much pushback as there would’ve been during a normal budget cycle.
Thankfully, funding for both programs is proposed to be restored in the 9-month budget to be voted on at the end of the month. The supplemental budget was the first one I was a part of as an assemblywoman. I voted no on the 3-month plan. The first thing I noticed about the process was how quickly and easily those two extremely important property-tax programs were cut.
New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation by a wide margin. It’s something every property owner in this state knows. It would seem counterintuitive to fill any revenue hole with property tax relief money, but yet it is often the first thing on the chopping block.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t just a Governor Murphy problem. Prior governors have targeted the Homestead Benefit and Senior Freeze as quick money grabs to balance budgets. And although they slash the overall funding, they still make sure to put out a press release of the gracious property-tax rebates homeowners will be getting.
Targeting property tax relief programs to fill budget holes should be looked at as just as nefarious as stripping any other social program that helps people out of poverty and into the middle class. Twenty years of Democratic policies in New Jersey have discouraged home ownership and forced many young families and seniors to rent. Home ownership has always been a tried and true path on making it into the middle class. For most, it is the best way to build equity and have an asset that appreciates in value.
For too long, policies in New Jersey have been short sighted and focused on surface-level solutions. In theory, this state has continuously raised taxes and relied on a larger government to dole out the money as it sees fit with the goal of making a more equitable society. In the meantime, these policies have crippled property taxpayers who consistently have to foot the bill for our insatiable government.
The Homestead Benefit and Senior Freeze are surface level solutions as well. They are treatments to the underlying symptom of record-high property taxes, but since New Jersey Democrats have shown no appetite to get property taxes under control, these programs need to be properly funded. Seniors cannot afford yearly increases to stay in their homes. They will continue to choose to move south. Low-income families cannot afford a tax bill that increases by $200 every year. They will be forced to rent. Hopefully, one year we will not need either of these programs and we’ll see a reality where tax bills stay flat.
Until the state legislature shows an honest appetite for tackling the property tax issue, we need to do everything we can to encourage home ownership and stave off foreclosures and evictions. The days of targeting property tax relief programs to fill budget holes need to end. They could very well be the only lifeline between a family keeping their home or getting it taken by a bank.
Assemblywoman Jean Stanfield (R) represents New Jersey’s 8th Legislative District. She is also the former sheriff of Burlington County, N.J.