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Calling your yard a farm doesn't make it one

For selling $500 worth of firewood, or Christmas trees, a landowner can qualify for up to a 98 percent property-tax break in New Jersey, leaving his neighbors to pick up the slack for schools and municipal services.

The tax break has been abused so much there are folk tales about socialites holding parties to trade checks for the "sale" of Christmas trees or wood. No doubt they reserve some hee-hawing for the fools paying New Jersey's average of $7,600 in property taxes a year.

Former Gov. Christie Whitman took advantage of the program. So did rock stars Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, according to a U.S. Senate report titled "Subsidies of the Rich and Famous." Also on the list is former Eagles tackle and U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.).

Fortunately, there is an effort to raise the threshold to qualify for the tax break to $1,000, led by State Sen. Jen Beck (R., Monmouth), who four years ago defeated a Democratic opponent who sold Christmas trees grown on the land surrounding her stately home.

Beck's bill, aimed at weeding out what she calls "fake farmers," is cosponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), providing another example of the type of bipartisanship achieved at the state level that is sorely needed in Washington.

Runyan pays almost $62,000 in property taxes on the three acres immediately surrounding his Mount Laurel mansion. But because he chops wood and raises a few donkeys on his other 20 "farm" acres, his property-tax bill on that land is just $123.80.

The Beck-Sweeney bill calls on the Legislature to review the $1,000-in-sales threshold every three years, which is a solid idea to keep the 1964 law current. The law needs to be fixed, not discarded. It has helped thousands of real farmers stay in business in one of the nation's most property-taxed states.

Preserving farmland by offering tax relief is a worthy goal. Rolling farmland consumes fewer government services than developed land and provides drainage in a state where floods have become increasingly devastating. But the state shouldn't continue to subsidize landowners who are gaming the system for breaks.

As a congressman, Runyan votes on tax policy. He knows he holds the public's trust, not a football, in his hands. Accordingly, he should take a pass on accepting a tax break that wasn't meant for homeowners playacting as farmers.