Fact: N.J. is a highly taxed state

April 09, 2010

This op-ed appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger on April 9, 2010.

There is a wild rumor that New Jersey residents are not overtaxed. But if "overtaxed" means "higher than in other states," then there's no dispute: New Jerseyans pay high taxes.

Mary Forsberg of New Jersey Policy Perspective attacks Gov. Chris Christie for his assessment that "New Jersey residents are the most over-taxed in the country." She concedes that the property taxes are high. How could she say otherwise? According to the most recent Census data available, New Jersey homeowners paid more tax on the homes they live in than homeowners in any other state except one. Counting all residential and commercial property taxes, New Jersey ranked first. In a ranking of the 775 largest counties in the nation according to median real estate tax payment, six of the top 10 are in New Jersey.

Forsberg claims these high property taxes are justified because New Jersey does not have local income or local sales taxes. We could point out that Newark's 1 percent payroll tax disproves her claim, but even if that were repealed, her argument wouldn't hold. Many states lack either local sales taxes (she counts 12 and I count 17) or local income taxes (she counts 38 and I count 34). Nine states lack both, and they all have lower property taxes than New Jersey.

Delaware and Oregon have no sales taxes at all. Texas, Washington and five other states have no income tax. New Hampshire taxes neither sales nor wages. These are places that could plausibly make excuses for high property taxes, yet they all have lower property taxes than New Jersey.

In short, the only excuse for New Jersey's high property taxes is its high spending on government employees and their programs.

It is true that New Jersey raises less revenue from sales taxes than it would with local collection—only ranking 22nd highest in collections—but the state rate of 7 percent is the second highest in the nation.

Gas taxes in New Jersey are low and rank 47th. But look at another excise tax: the highly regressive cigarette tax. New Jersey has the fifth highest cigarette taxes in the country at $2.75 a pack.

Looking at income taxes reinforces New Jersey's high-tax reputation. The state has a monstrous six-bracket income tax with a top rate of 8.97 percent—the sixth highest in the country. Top marginal rates matter for a state which needs to attract often wealthy entrepreneurs—or keep them from leaving—so that the state as a whole may prosper.

And then there are corporate income taxes. New Jersey's 9 percent rate is the sixth highest in the country. New Jersey raises the fifth largest amount of revenue from state and local corporate income taxes per capita.

All of this and more contributes to New Jersey ranking last on two studies the Tax Foundation produces. First, our annual calculation of state-local tax burdens ranks states by how much of their income residents surrender in all state and local taxes. New Jersey residents paid the most in fiscal year 2008, 11.8 percent of income.

Next, our State Business Tax Climate Index measures the "tax-friendliness" of each state's tax system. The most competitive are found in states that raise sufficient tax revenue with economically neutral and simple tax systems—those with broad, flat and low rates. New Jersey ranks last.

If one wants to argue for more progressive policies in New Jersey, as Forsberg undoubtedly does, many would welcome the debate. But asserting that Christie is "misleading" the public by saying New Jersey residents have the highest tax burden is, in itself, misleading. Numbing New Jerseyans into complacency concerning the cost of their government will only keep the state moving down the road to insolvency.

Justin Higginbottom is a state analyst with the Tax Foundation.

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