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Trickle-Down Economics, Trickle-Up Pain

I can’t help but imagine that the ghost of Ronald Reagan is standing on the sidelines somewhere cheering on Gov. Christie as he attempts to resuscitate “trickle-down economics.” Some 30 years later, we’re watching the ramifications of this failed experiment play out on the national stage. Do we really want to replicate this disaster at the state level?

Gov. Christie’s proposed budget is like a vice that will squeeze out the lower- and middle-income classes in New Jersey.

We witnessed this firsthand when one of my constituents, a senior citizen surviving on only $725 a month from Social Security, recently showed up at my office in tears because his property-tax bill skyrocketed from $400 to $666, forcing him to forgo paying his car insurance bill after turning over nearly his entire check to the city of Trenton. With an income of only $8,700 per year, this gentleman cannot live on much less. Factoring in the rising cost of gas and groceries, his property-tax increase is literally taxing him out of his home.

Senior citizens on a fixed income, many of whom have owned their homes for decades, are being squeezed at each end. This year, they are not receiving a cost of living increase in their Social Security payments. And under the governor’s proposed budget, they will lose their property-tax rebates, assume a $310 annual deductible if they have prescription drug coverage under the state’s Senior Gold or PAAD programs, and see their co-pays on name-brand prescriptions double under the PAAD program.

Now factor in some of the largest property-tax increases in history, and many senior citizens will be forced to choose between putting food on the table and selling their homes, many of which have long been paid off, but the property taxes are now unaffordable. And in this economy, most won’t even be able to sell their homes.

I use Trenton as an example because the situation there will only be made worse by the governor’s proposal to cut $43 million in special aid — funding the city relies on heavily to offset the loss of 50 percent of its property-tax revenue to state properties. But this isn’t a new phenomenon, and it’s not limited to Trenton. It’s a statewide problem that has been compounded this year by the drastic cuts in state aid.

The governor all but assured that local property taxes would skyrocket everywhere when he announced his plans to cut roughly $1 billion in direct school aid, $445 million in municipal aid, and $848 million in property-tax rebates, on top of the $475 million he confiscated from the surpluses of school districts in the current budget.

The April 20 rejection of a record number of school budgets provided an outlet for voters to vent their outrage over out-of-control property taxes. At present, more than 50 percent of property taxes collected go to fund school operations. Our over-reliance on this method of funding is cripplingly unfair. Now that the voters have spoken, it’s time to get to work, both on short-term solutions to this year’s budget problems and long-term systemic changes to the way we pay for education and government services at the local level.

With more than 500 municipalities and nearly 600 school districts, it’s time we get serious about promoting consolidation and shared services in order to save taxpayer dollars. Ultimately, we need to be creative in finding solutions to make education and government services as cost-effective as possible.

In the long term, we need to find a new method to fund education, one that is not so reliant on property taxes, which do not take into account a person’s real ability to pay, particularly in the case of senior citizens and the disabled.

Unless we find a more equitable way to fund our education system, it will collapse under its own weight. Ultimately, our children are the ones who will pay the price. Already, they are watching their teachers being laid off; classroom sizes expanding; special ed, basic skills, athletic and arts programs being eliminated; and their overall educational experience diminished.

The governor’s latest solution to our education crisis is to back a voucher system, a move that will not only divert more money from public education and put it into private, religious and charter schools, but one that will also blur the separation line between church and state if we now start funding religious-based schools.

The governor’s “tool kit” to fix New Jersey is starting to look more like a wrecking ball. And if you’re a senior citizen, a student, or of modest income, you better get out of the way. But if you’re earning more than $1 million per year, you are very fortunate, because the governor has no intention to ask you to “share the pain.”