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Christie: 'Fees,' fixes are not taxes

Adjustments the governor's budget proposes are similar to what he attacked Buono for in the 2013 campaign.

TRENTON - The Christie administration is proposing a series of "tax policy adjustments" in its next budget to "close loopholes, increase consistency, and support fairness."

But none of them, the Christie administration says, are new taxes or tax increases.

Fees and adjustments are favored terms for both parties in modern political discourse. But the tax rhetoric being used by the administration is notable, in part, because the Republican governor repeatedly attacked his Democratic rival in his reelection campaign last year for voting to raise taxes and fees "154 times" in her legislative career.

Forced to balance a budget that includes a record $2.25 billion payment to the state pension system, Gov. Christie is embracing policies similar to those he derided as a candidate. Yet making good on his pledge not to raise taxes may be vital to a 2016 presidential bid.

"Gov. Christie has historically spoken about transparency. We need transparency in language, too," Assembly Budget Chairman Gary Schaer (D., Passaic) said in an interview.

"Revenue enhancements, call them what you want, it's new taxes," he said. "That's what the governor is proposing. I'm sure he's not happy about proposing it. Most of the people I'm talking to are even less happy about paying it."

None of Christie's budgets has raised rates on income, corporate, or sales taxes - the state's top revenue sources. In February, he proposed a $34.4 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The administration says its "tax policy adjustments" will generate $205 million for fiscal 2015.

One proposal would require out-of-state online retailers to collect New Jersey's 7 percent sales tax. Christie's treasurer, Andrew P. Sidamon-Eristoff, told legislators the move is a matter of fairness, since brick-and-mortar stores currently collect it.

State law already requires consumers to pay the tax if retailers don't collect it, according to Sidamon-Eristoff. But few people do. So the administration says it just seeks to enforce existing law by shifting the burden of collection to the retailer.

"This is not a new tax," Sidamon-Eristoff told the Senate Budget Committee this month. Amazon began collecting the tax for New Jersey in 2013 in a deal with Christie to build two warehouses in the state.

Christie also proposes to extend the tobacco products wholesale sales tax to electronic cigarettes to "achieve rough parity" with taxes on conventional cigarettes. Currently, e-cigarettes are subject only to the standard sales tax.

"Why should we favor one form of delivering highly addictive, tobacco-derived nicotine over another?" Sidamon-Eristoff said.

Other adjustments include no longer exempting businesses in Urban Enterprise Zones from the 3.5 percent sales tax on purchases of certain supplies. The sales tax is lower within the zones as an incentive to spur economic activity, and consumers shopping there already pay it.

Kim Rueben, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, said that by expanding the base of both taxes, "revenues will go up but rates will not."

"Some of this is fun with language. So tax revenues will increase, so in that way it is an increase. . . . But, in part, I think [Christie] is trying to raise more revenues while avoiding anything that looks like a new tax."

Some Democrats - whom Christie has assailed as tax-and-spenders - say the governor is advancing proposals he once criticized as tax increases.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D., Union) said the proposals are important, but "in terms of the linguistics we use, they're not tax alternatives."

"They're not anything else. They're tax hikes," he told Sidamon-Eristoff at the budget hearing.

Democrats also say Christie's 2010 reduction of the earned-income tax credit given to certain low-income earners amounts to a tax hike.

The Democrat who got the brunt of Christie's wrath was Barbara Buono, the state senator who challenged him in last year's election. In a TV ad, Christie's campaign accused Buono of voting to raise taxes and fees 154 times. The governor's record, according to the ad? "Four balanced budgets. No new taxes for anyone."

The campaign counted Buono's votes on bills with increases in taxes or fees from 1996 to 2010. In 2007, for example, she voted in favor of a bill that limited exemptions from sales taxes on business purchases made in Urban Enterprise Zones. One of Christie's budget proposals also restricts those exemptions.

One bill, supported by the majority of both parties, established fees for various professional licenses to cover paperwork costs. Another raised the sales tax back to 7 percent and expanded it to cover services such as tanning.

Christie won reelection in November by 22 percentage points.

In a February address to the Legislature, he declared his budget proposal "requires no new taxes on the people of New Jersey."

"This budget also helps create a level playing field for our middle-class taxpayers, closing corporate loopholes to promote tax fairness," he said.

Asked if Christie's proposals were different from those he faulted Buono for, his spokesman, Kevin Roberts, said: "I think that depends on the lens you use."

He said Buono's votes were best understood in the context of her "record and how she would govern," including plans for $1 billion in new spending.

In contrast, the governor lived up to his first-term pledge not to increase taxes or support new ones and maintains that commitment, he said.

Christie's record on taxes could come into play in a Republican presidential primary. Other potential candidates have weighed in on the online sales tax debate at the federal level.

The U.S. Senate last year passed the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would require online retailers with a minimum of $1 million in remote sales to collect sales and use taxes and remit the revenues to local governments.

The measure stalled in the Republican-led House, which is now considering an alternative.

GOP presidential hopefuls have chimed in: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul denounced the Senate measure as a big tax increase. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he would use resulting revenue to lower state income taxes.

Last month, Grover Norquist, president of the influential antitax group Americans for Tax Reform, urged New Jersey legislators to reject Christie's budget proposals.

"Neither proposal is about tax law fairness; they are clearly cash grabs aimed at raising tens of millions of dollars," he wrote in a letter to legislators (copied to Christie).

"When is a fee a tax?" mused Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R., Morris), who says he has not voted for a single tax increase since becoming a legislator in 1996.

(He opposes Christie's proposals and said the e-cigarette plan is "a tax increase or a new tax, call it what you will. I ain't voting for it.")

"I supported increases in fees on hunting and fishing licenses. That's not a tax, because [the money] goes back to what you're using it for. DMV fees are basically taxes."

"Sometimes," he said, "the semantic differences are important."