N.J. Voters to Pick Nominees to Replace Christie in Primary -- Update

New Jersey voters were heading to the primary polls Tuesday to select nominees for governor of a state dogged by high property taxes, a looming public-pension crisis and increasingly unreliable transit infrastructure.

Polls show the Democratic contest is being led by Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who has never held elected office, and opponents Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Jim Johnson, a retired attorney who served in the U.S. Treasury Department. All are offering progressive platforms that include the legalization of marijuana and a $15 minimum wage.

Right-of-center conservatives are dominating the Republican field with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli leading in the polls. Both have expressed a desire to revamp the state's school-funding formula, and concern about how the president's health-care agenda will affect Medicaid coverage in New Jersey.

Tom Agnew, a 68-year-old insurance broker from Glen Ridge, said the state's financial woes are his biggest worry. "The pension fund, the debt -- they have to really come to grips with the finances or it's going to hold them back on just about everything else," he said.

New Jersey is facing a massive unfunded public pension liability, which Moody's Investors Service forecasts will lead to a $3.6 billion annual budget deficit within six years. The credit ratings for New Jersey's general-obligation bonds have been downgraded 11 times by three different firms during Gov. Chris Christie's tenure.

Mr. Christie, a Republican who can't run for a third term, has sought to burnish his economic legacy in recent months. The state's unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since 2001, and stands at 4.1%, compared with 9.8% when he took office in 2010. The governor has also pointed to a deal reached last year with the Democratic-controlled state Legislature to phase out the state estate tax as key to making New Jersey more competitive.

Turnout in the Tuesday election is expected to be low, and a May poll by Stockton University found that nearly a third of likely primary voters were still undecided on the candidates.

Mary Mowder, a 51-year-old registered Republican from Freehold, said she usually votes in the general election but isn't planning to cast a ballot in Tuesday's primary. "To be honest with you I didn't even realize it was tomorrow," she said, adding that she hopes fixing the delays and train breakdowns on NJ Transit is a priority for the next governor.

New Jersey has closed primary elections, meaning more than 40% of the electorate -- including the state's nearly 2.4 million unaffiliated and roughly 26,000 third-party voters -- can't cast ballots Tuesday. There are more than two million registered Democrats in New Jersey and about 1.2 million Republicans.

Democratic front-runner Mr. Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany who lent $16 million of his own funds to his primary campaign, has proposed opening a state bank to provide "fair commercial rates" for student loans, small businesses and local infrastructure projects. He has also been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump's policies on health care, immigration and the environment.

"This is where we stop Donald Trump's assault on our values," Mr. Murphy said in his campaign's final TV ad ahead of the primary election.

Mr. Wisniewski, the assemblyman, is an attorney who has served in the state legislature for more than 20 years. He chairs the lower chamber's transportation committee and co-chaired a legislative panel that investigated the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures.

Mr. Wisniewski, an early supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign, proposed last month a bill that would create a single payer system to cover primary and preventive care for New Jersey residents. "This legislation will cover more people, drive down costs and provide a competitive advantage over other states," he said.

In the GOP contest, Ms. Guadagno has been polling ahead of Mr. Ciattarelli. Ms. Guadagno, who has served in Mr. Christie's administration since 2010, has proposed a tax plan that would give homeowners tax credits if the school portion of their tax bills exceeds 5% of annual household income. The proposal's $1.5 billion cost would be paid in part through savings from a statewide government audit as well as revenue growth.

"The most important thing is we help the people who need the help most while we take all of the time that it's going to take to fix the school funding formula," Ms. Guadagno said last month.

Mr. Ciattarelli, who until recently owned a medical publishing company and has served in the state Legislature since 2011, has proposed school funding changes that would require taxpayers in every municipality to pay for at least 25% of their school's operating budget within five years. "The only way to solve the property tax crisis in New Jersey is with a more equitable distribution of state funding for schools," he said.

Write to Kate King at Kate.King@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 06, 2017 09:51 ET (13:51 GMT)