It’s a simple question loaded with political appeal: “With so many people hurting and income disparities rising, shouldn’t we ask New Jersey’s millionaires to pay a ‘fair share’ in taxes?”
Okay, what’s a “fair” share? If the current share of state income tax paid by the top 1 percent of New Jersey’s taxpayers — about 37 percent — isn’t high enough, what is? Would 80 percent be fair? Or 90 percent? Taxpayers earning $1 million pay an effective tax rate that is about four times what taxpayers earning $100,000 pay. When and how will we know when we’ve achieved “fairness”?
Unfortunately, intense partisanship — feeding on visceral emotions — has made it virtually impossible to have a rational conversation about taxes in America. As a senior member of the state Assembly’s Budget Committee, I think those of us in positions of leadership have a responsibility to do more than stoke emotions, and instead, adopt tax policies that generate the revenue needed to support budget priorities on a fair and sustainable basis.
Piling taxes on the rich may be great politics, but it’s lousy public policy. New Jersey already has a progressive income tax system, which, thanks to high-income households receiving a greater proportion of their income from investments and capital gains, has made our revenue base highly volatile. Increasing our relative reliance on high-income taxpayers will increase volatility, making it more difficult to engage in prudent, long-term financial planning.
Most experts believe increased volatility is a problem because fiscal stability is a condition precedent to sound policymaking. Wild fluctuations in revenues fuel an inefficient boom-and-bust approach to budget-making that mismanages expectations. The impact of emergent budget cuts on New Jersey residents is regressive — those at middle and lower income levels experience the pain of budget cuts disproportionately, since they more often benefit from state programs.
Some editorialists have suggested Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent decision to embrace higher rates for high-income New Yorkers should serve as an example for New Jersey. New York’s current high rate is 8.97 percent, the same as New Jersey’s. Instead of letting the rate go down to 6.85 percent, as scheduled, Cuomo is saying he’ll let the rate fall to 8.82 percent for taxpayers at $2 million or more, but let the rate fall to 6.85 percent for taxpayers between $300,000 and $2 million. Everyone in New York will get a tax cut, but folks above $2 million will get less of a tax cut than they had expected. If that’s the standard of “fairness,” maybe the editorialists are right and we should follow New York’s example.
Here’s the critical point: The top marginal rate in New York will soon fall below the top rate in New Jersey; that’s not good news for our competitive position.
A review of national IRS data by Charles Steindel, the state Treasury’s chief economist, confirmed a statistical connection between tax increases enacted under former Gov. James E. McGreevey and an increase of affluent taxpayers who moved out of, or never moved into, New Jersey. Steindel also conducted a survey confirming a significant proportion of tax advisers had discussed the idea of moving out of New Jersey with their relatively affluent clients. The study and survey were modest in scope and merely confirmed what we already know: Yes, Virginia, taxes matter.
Are they the only competitive consideration? Absolutely not. Infrastructure, regulations, climate, educational levels and other factors play a major role.
Instead of asking “What’s fair?” we should be asking “What’s in our long-term self-interest?” I suggest it’s in New Jersey’s interest to pursue policies that support sustainable and growing revenue collections over time. Although New Jersey cannot expect to compete globally on the basis of low taxes alone, we should avoid negative “outlier” status and, with it, the kind of reputation that once prevented the Garden State from getting into the starting blocks when companies make site selections.