The following testimony, on the FY 2021 Revised Budget, was delivered to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on September 11, 2020.
Chairman Sarlo and members of the committee. My name is Sheila Reynertson and I am a Senior Policy Analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective. I am also testifying as a member of the For The Many coalition, which seeks to enhance equity through the tax code and raise adequate revenue to meet the challenges facing the Garden State.
With the initial pandemic outbreak behind us and the likelihood of another outbreak this winter, all signs are pointing to a long, drawn-out economic recovery. Unlike New Jersey’s last recession, low-income workers and small businesses have been hit the hardest by this crisis with cut hours, layoffs, or businesses shutting down entirely. Job losses thought to be temporary are now becoming permanent, which may reduce low-income and middle-class families’ earnings for years to come. This reality must be at the center of the state budget negotiations.
In fact, we implore the legislature to adopt a long-term approach to the state budget this year, to consider not just the immediate 9-month plan but the next fiscal year as well. How New Jersey policymakers respond to the needs of New Jersey families over the next 21 months will have enormous economic consequences for decades to come.
The legislature has a choice: prioritize racial and economic equity by helping New Jerseyans through a tough economic downturn or continue giving away massive tax breaks to wealthy households and millionaires. New Jersey may not be able to control the timing or severity of a second wave of the coronavirus, but policymakers do have tools to prepare and respond more effectively. Here are our top recommendations.
First, protect the state programs needed to meet the demands induced by the pandemic and the economic crisis that is still unfolding. After years of disinvestment and deep cuts, services and programs that support workers, students, children, and families continue to be under- or flat funded. The damage done was far from being fully repaired and then a global public health crisis struck. Legislators must plan for the full impact that has yet to hit the state. If that means borrowing to shore up the surplus, so be it.
Next, raise revenue quickly while making our income tax more progressive. It’s time to think big and bold — and aim high. There is no good reason why earnings between $500,000 and $5 million are taxed at the same rate. By raising the income tax on the wealthiest 5 percent of households, our state budget will no longer be balanced on the backs of working and middle class families.
We recommend adding four brackets to the state’s income tax and increasing rates on the state’s wealthiest households. This would raise more than $1 billion in new revenue each year for education, aid to cities and towns, and property tax relief for struggling households. The tax increase would be paid almost exclusively by New Jersey’s ultra-wealthy, with the top 1 percent – households with average annual incomes of $2.4 million – paying 85 percent.
This tax reform would also make New Jersey’s tax system more equitable, finally undoing the tax code’s upside-down nature, in which low-income and middle-class New Jerseyans have historically paid greater shares of their incomes to state and local taxes than wealthy residents.
To those concerned about losing high earners to another state, consider this: Based on the growth trend of high-income households over the past two decades, there is no reason to treat millionaires like an endangered species. In fact, New Jersey has proven itself to be a healthy and sustainable habitat for them as the state continues to gain millionaire-earning tax filers every year.
Successful corporations have a stake in bringing back New Jersey’s economy. The 2017 Trump tax cuts were a huge giveaway to big corporations and pass-throughs. Given the extraordinary circumstances we are facing, it is vital to make the corporate business tax surcharge permanent as a reliable and sustainable source of needed revenue to ensure a full recovery. We also support the Governor’s proposal of a five percent surcharge on Qualified Business Income for individuals earning over $1 million in income generated by pass-throughs. This would recapture a substantial percentage of a very generous deduction gifted at the federal level. Even with the surcharge, these individuals would still come out ahead.
Finally, we encourage the legislature to take this opportunity to restore fiscal responsibility. Just as our pension obligation is non negotiable, so is our need for sustainable budgeting without resorting to raids of dedicated funds and gimmicky one-time revenue raisers. To get back on track, we must adopt good budgeting practices recognized by credit rating agencies, like prioritizing a healthy surplus and rebuilding the Rainy Day Fund to avoid deep, harmful cuts in the future. States should set aside about 16 percent of total general fund spending for emergencies, according to the Government Finance Officers Association. New Jersey currently has 0 percent in its Rainy Day Fund.
Finally, NJPP thanks the Legislature for enacting a state-level Health Insurance Assessment tax which largely recaptures the recently repealed annual fee on health insurance providers and will support subsidies for New Jerseyans purchasing health insurances. A small percentage of this windfall could also support efforts to make the remaining 80,000 uninsured children in New Jersey eligible for health insurance with the added bonus of $60 million in federal matching funds. We know these kids are at risk for poorer health outcomes and school performance. It’s time to cover all of New Jersey’s kids.