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Assemblywoman Kim Eulner at Gov. Phil Murphy's fiscal year 2023 budget address delivered on March 8, 2022. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Vulnerable Republicans face difficult choices in next week’s budget vote

Democrats likely to attack Republicans who vote no on relief proposals

By Joey Fox, June 24 2022 4:20 pm

The New Jersey State Budget is, by its very nature, an unwieldy document. Faced with hundreds of pages detailing exactly where every cent of the state’s money will go in the upcoming fiscal year, no typical New Jerseyan is going to understand exactly what the budget says and does.

But while they may not read it cover to cover, people around the state will no doubt feel the budget’s impact. This year, the Democrats in charge of the budget process intend to providing relief in a number of highly visible and straightforward ways which may improve their electoral prospects – and which provide easy fodder for attacks against the Republicans who oppose them.

The cornerstone of the year’s budget is the Affordable New Jersey Communities for Homeowners and Renters (ANCHOR) property tax relief program, which Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden), and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) formally unveiled two weeks ago. Under the program, around 2 million households, representing more than half of the state’s residents, would receive direct property tax rebates.

Earlier this week, Murphy and legislative leadership added a second plank to their affordability plan: a sales tax holiday on back-to-school items at the beginning of the upcoming school year.

Republicans have largely derided the initiatives as insufficient responses to inflation and the state’s high cost of living. The sales tax holiday has in particular drawn Republican scorn; Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio (R-Hackettstown) called it a “gimmick” and “a red herring to make people think they aren’t being overtaxed.”

For legislative Republicans representing swing districts, however, next week’s votes on the budget and the tax holiday – which are likely to come up separately – represent a complicated political calculus. 

Most Republican legislators believe that the budget insufficiently addresses the state’s affordability problems, and that their own proposals are superior to those drafted by Democrats. Yet the ultimate choice will simply be to vote for or against, with potential consequences for the 2023 elections.

State Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor), who represents the perennially competitive 2nd district in Atlantic County, said that he’s “inclined to support the budget at this point” and added that he supports the idea of a sales tax holiday.

“I’ve always supported every effort to lower property taxes and to get people tax relief in any form, so certainly I’m going to support any efforts to provide residents of New Jersey with tax relief,” he said.

On the other hand, Assemblywoman Kim Eulner (R-Shrewsbury) – possibly the single most vulnerable Republican legislator in the state – was dismissive of the entire proceedings.

“I’m not feeling confident about the budget,” she said. “I think the small window of time to save 7% is laughable. The prices of everything are skyrocketing, and 7% is not going to save anybody.”

State Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Westampton), who will likely be targeted less in 2023 than Eulner or Polistina but who still represents a competitive district, came down somewhere in the middle, calling the tax holiday a “gimmick” while saying she didn’t yet know where she stands on the budget overall.

“I’m not going to commit one way or the other until I actually see [the budget],” Stanfield said. “There’s a lot more we can do to really make New Jersey more affordable, and we have to really tackle those issues.”

Regardless of their justifications for their votes, any vulnerable Republican who opposes the budget or any other tax relief proposal is almost certainly going to have to bear the brunt of Democratic attacks arguing that they voted against the needs of their districts. (The Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee declined to comment on the record.)

Stanfield, who arrived in the Senate this year after defeating State Sen. Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham), has been on the receiving end of such broadsides before. In her 2021 campaign against Addiego, Stanfield was slammed by a Democratic ad for her vote against a middle class tax rebate that was part of a deal to fund the state’s millionaires tax.

Of course, those ads didn’t prevent Stanfield from winning, and similar attacks focused on this year’s budget votes won’t be enough on their own to win any legislative races. But as many new and vulnerable Republican legislators gear up for their 2023 campaigns, the budget vote will be an early test of who goes along with Democratic proposals and who is willing to risk Democratic attacks.

George Christopher contributed reporting to this story.

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