The debate over the capping of salaries of public workers is one of the most important debates we will have in Trenton this legislative session - perhaps of the decade. Property taxes are the most burdensome and regressive of taxes we pay.
Since on average 60 percent to 70 percent of our property tax dollars go to pay for salaries, it isn't hard to understand that controlling those costs is at the core of the solutions to controlling our taxes. These simple facts make the ongoing debate over capping salary increases of public workers so significant.
This debate isn't an attack on public workers - police, firemen or others - as some folks intent on derailing legitimate debate have attempted to suggest. Rather, it is a debate over whether the taxpayers will get policies that make sense from their elected officials in Trenton. Over the past two decades we have put in place conflicting, unworkable mandates on our local officials and the taxpayers who suffer the consequences.
The debate raging now isn't really about a hard cap on salary increases. It's about whether we should return control over how our tax dollars are spent to local elected officials and the very people paying the taxes. The policies that the administration and Republican legislators are advocating would amount to the greatest transfer of power - from Trenton politicians to local elected officials and local voters - in the history of the state.
The basic policy isn't hard to understand. To enable local elected officials to live within the 2 percent tax cap (passed with both Democrat and Republican support) and control property taxes, we must give municipal and school officials the ability to control their largest costs. The policy we've proposed is not a "hard" cap as it's often referred to by those wishing to muddle the debate. It can more precisely be described as a flexible cap with a hard backstop.
It would give local elected officials and their employees the ability to negotiate any salary number they see fit. But if they cannot find savings in other areas in order to permit salaries to exceed the 2 percent levy cap - or get permission from voters to increase taxes above the cap - they will have the option to draw the line at 2 percent per year or on average over the life a labor contract.
Legislative leaders arguing against this sound policy are using arguments that hold no water. The idea that this debate is an either/or debate and that we need to merge and share services instead of controlling salaries is ridiculous on its face. Let's all agree now we should do all of the above.
The suggestion that if given the ability to keep salaries within the levy cap, local officials will blindly keep salary increases to 2 percent in perpetuity simply isn't true. In order to bring salary costs under control, they may keep increases to 2 percent for a period of time. But if they keep salary increases at that level for too long - and inflation eats into the value of public worker salaries - then local elected officials and taxpayers will have to come together to decide to increase those salaries.
Together they will decide to pay for them with either tax increases or cuts elsewhere - or risk reducing the quality of services they get. This isn't rocket science, it's simple math. Regardless, under this new policy the control over the cost and quality of services will be in the hands of local officials and taxpayers - not Trenton politicians speaking from on high whose loyalty certainly has not proven to be with taxpayers.