N.J. Voters Worry About Taxes as They Elect a New Governor

New Jersey's voters are going to the polls Tuesday to decide who will take over running the state from outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who, after two terms in office, is leaving Trenton with one of the lowest job-approval ratings of any U.S. governor.

The winner of the election will inherit a state facing large and expensive problems, from underfunded public pensions to crumbling transportation infrastructure, at a time when the electorate is loath to accept more tax increases. The average residential property-tax bill in New Jersey has increased 32% during the past decade, reaching $8,200 in 2016, and public polls consistently have found that the state's voters list taxes as their top concern.

The election pits Democratic nominee Phil Murphy, a former Wall Street executive who has never held elected office, against Republican Kim Guadagno, a former county sheriff who has been Mr. Christie's lieutenant governor since 2010. Five other third-party candidates also are on the ballot.

Public polls have shown Mr. Murphy leading Ms. Guadagno throughout the campaign, and a survey of likely voters conducted last week by Quinnipiac University found the Democrat with a 12-point lead.

Mr. Christie, dogged by the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal and his unsuccessful run for the GOP presidential nomination, has a job approval rating of about 15% among New Jersey voters. He is prevented by term limits from running for a third term.

The gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia are the first major statewide elections since Republican Donald Trump won the presidency. The results could indicate the broader political landscape ahead of next year's midterm elections.

New Jersey's financial problems are significant: Its $88.8 billion public-pension liability is 41% unfunded, and that $36.5 billion deficit will weigh on future state budgets. State funding for K-12 public schools hasn't kept pace with a funding formula outlined in state law, infuriating education activists and putting pressure on local property taxes.

And a host of transportation challenges -- financial uncertainty about construction of a new train tunnel under the Hudson River, funding and management struggles at NJ Transit, and questions regarding the replacement of the ailing Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan -- will require significant investment by New Jersey's next governor.

At the same time, New Jersey's real gross domestic product, a measure of economic strength, saw a compound annual growth rate of only 0.2% between 2006 and 2016 compared with 1.1% nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. And weighed down by pension woes, New Jersey general-obligation bonds have been downgraded 11 times across three credit-rating firms since Mr. Christie took office in 2010.

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said the winner likely would seek to stimulate economic growth to boost revenues without raising taxes to pay for the funding needs.

"There is the ugly specter that New Jersey residents will be asked to be pay more in taxes, which is not what the next governor wants," Ms. Harrison said.

Ms. Guadagno, 58 years old, has staked her political future on her promise to lower property taxes, saying she won't run for reelection if she's unsuccessful. She has proposed implementing a "circuit breaker" that would cap the school portion of residents' property tax bills at 5% of their household income. She estimates her circuit-breakerplan would cost the state $1.5 billion. She has said she would address the deficit with savings from an audit of state departments and services and by reworking New Jersey's school-funding formula.

Mr. Murphy, 60, has run on a progressive platform that promises higher spending for state employee-retirement benefits, public schools and higher education. Throughout the campaign, he has been sharply critical of Mr. Christie's record and sought to link Ms. Guadagno to what he describes as Mr. Christie's "failed administration."

Mr. Murphy, who was endorsed early on by New Jersey's teachers union, has pledged to fully fund the state's pension payments "as fast as possible." He said he would pay for the increased contributions and other priorities by growing the economy, legalizing marijuana and closing loopholes for corporations.

New Jersey resident Kathy Loughran, 58, said she plans to vote for Ms. Guadagno because she fears her taxes will go up if Mr. Murphy is elected."The only way he can pay for what he wants to do is to raise our taxes," said Ms. Loughran, a real-estate appraiser. Michael Jorgensen, a 65-year-old woodworker from Essex County, agreed that taxes "just eat us alive," but said he believes Mr. Murphy would seek to raise the tax burden on the wealthy to pay for education initiatives. He said he wants a complete change from Mr. Christie's administration and is concerned that Ms. Guadagno is too close to the governor. "I don't feel comfortable with anyone who had direct contact with him," he said.

After focusing on property taxes for most of the campaign, Ms. Guadagno has taken a hard stance on immigration in recent weeks. She slammed Mr. Murphy's promise to protect undocumented residents from deportation, saying his policies would put residents' safety at risk.

Mr. Murphy has accused Ms. Guadagno of distorting his comments on immigration. He has voiced strong support for so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their parents.

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

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 07, 2017 07:00 ET (12:00 GMT)