4th District candidates vary in approaches to tax reform

By: Emily Craighead, Staff Writer
Princeton Packet, Oct. 21, 2005

Republican Assemblyman Bill Baroni and running mate Mike Paquette face off against Democrat Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein and running mate Dan Benson

For the most part, the four candidates vying to represent District 14 in the state Assembly agree on major problems facing the region and the state -- property taxes, the Transportation Trust Fund and affordable housing.

Their solutions vary, but not necessarily along party lines.

The candidates, Republican Assemblyman Bill Baroni and running mate Mike Paquette, and Democrat Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein and running mate Dan Benson, discussed taxes and other state and regional issues at an endorsement session with The Packet's editorial board Thursday.

All four candidates stated the need for long-term property-tax reform.

Mr. Baroni, who said he supports a constitutional convention on taxes, took issue with the property-tax rebate plans presented by both gubernatorial candidates.

"I had some of the same questions you had, not only about how much does it cost, but what does it do when it comes to vital government services," said Mr. Baroni, an attorney and professor at Seton Hall University School of Law. "Quite frankly, what does it do to many of the people we represent who work for the state?"

His running mate said all proposals should remain on the table.

"Is there a perfect plan when we talk about how to fix the problem of property-tax relief -- probably neither plan is perfect," said Mr. Paquette, who retired as police chief in South Brunswick in May. "It's a starting point."

Ms. Greenstein, who is assistant majority leader in the Assembly, suggested a constitutional convention -- followed, possibly, by a referendum -- to ensure public participation.

"I like the idea of a more hybrid approach, where we start out with a special session to narrow the issues down," Ms. Greenstein said.

Providing relief for taxpayers should remain a priority, regardless of the shape long-term reform takes, Mr. Benson said.

"In the short term, we need to maintain rebates and, where possible, increase them," Mr. Benson said. The former Hamilton Township Council president said his role would be to lobby members of his party to move forward with a constitutional convention.

When it came to solving the Transportation Trust Fund crisis, none of the candidates ruled out raising the gasoline tax.

"It is a user fee that is paid for 30 percent, 40 percent by people who do not live in New Jersey," Mr. Baroni said. "Our state is such a commuter state and people go through it so often that going to a system where people who are using our roads are helping pay for their use is a smarter thing. I think taking the gas tax off the table is not smart public policy."

Mr. Baroni, Ms. Greenstein and Mr. Benson said protecting the Transportation Trust Fund from being tapped for operating expenses is a key part of the solution.

Ms. Greenstein was hesitant about raising the gas tax.

"We have to be very sensitive to our taxpayers until we can do something about property taxes," she said.

The main source of funding for the Transportation Trust Fund should be a user fee, Mr. Paquette said.

Encouraging environmentalism should also be part of the equation, according to Mr. Benson.

Route 92 has long been a subject of contention in District 14, and Mr. Baroni and Mr. Paquette said it should not be built.

Citing traffic problems that could crop up at Route 1 and Ridge Road, where Route 92 would end, Mr. Paquette described the proposed project as an environmental disaster. He said he sees other priorities.

"It's a shame that the approximate nine-mile section of Route 1 in South Brunswick is not three lanes like it is north of us and like it is south of us," Mr. Paquette said.

Mr. Baroni referred to the possibility of the University Medical Center at Princeton moving to Plainsboro, and the increased traffic volume area roads would have to accommodate.

"There is very likely to be a very major medical center sitting on Route 1," he said. "Given that their market for this new hospital is coming from the north and from the east, we need to make sure Route 1 is flowing." A Route 92 dumping more traffic onto Route 1 near the new hospital would only worsen traffic flow, he said.

While venturing that she, too, does not think Route 92 should be built, Ms. Greenstein said more discussion could resolve the issue.

"The only way to do this is to get all the parties to sit together in a moderated, controlled setting," she said.

Mr. Benson also said Assembly members must weigh the interests of all their constituents.

"We have a responsibility as leaders in the 14th District to make sure we're improving the quality of life for people across the district," he said.

All four candidates said the need for more affordable housing is urgent.

In the event the University Medical Center at Princeton were to move to Plainsboro, Mr. Baroni said the township likely would have to seek exemptions from the Round 3 of the Council on Affordable Housing regulations.

Ms. Greenstein agreed that the COAH regulations did not foresee situations like this.

"This is something one doesn't anticipate; that you're going to get all sorts of new square footage without creating new jobs," she said, citing instead a shift of existing jobs from the old to new hospital site.

Such problems arise from a lack of regional planning, according to Mr. Benson.

"When we make requirements at the state level that are based on municipal borders, you get these unintended consequences," he said.

Mr. Paquette noted that affordable housing brings diversity, and as a result a good quality of life to communities.