TRENTON, N.J. — No one in America pays higher property taxes on average than the residents of New Jersey, but the top-party candidates vying to be the next governor are taking divergent approaches to the issue voters say is most important.

Surveys show the issue is top of mind for most voters, whose average bill in 2016 was about $8,300.

Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has made lowering rates a top cause to her campaign, while Democrat Phil Murphy has focused on it much less and proposes to lower rates indirectly.

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany from 2009 to 2013, holds a lead over Guadagno, who’s served as Christie’s top deputy since 2010. There are four additional third-party and independent candidates. The election is Nov. 7

THE ISSUE

Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature enacted in 2010 a 2 percent property tax cap and a 2 percent limit on fire and police officials whose salaries get negotiated through arbitration. The Christie administration cites data showing rates were rising on average about 4 percent per year shortly before the caps were in place, to about 2 percent under the caps.

The limit on fire and police interest arbitration awards expires Dec. 31, with Christie and Guadagno calling for it to be renewed. Murphy has declined to take a position.


IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Guadagno has promised not to run for re-election if she fails to lower property taxes and makes big promises on taking the bite out of tax bills.

“I’m going to deliver immediate property tax relief to New Jersey families,” she said.

She has dubbed the centerpiece of her plan to lower rates the “circuit breaker.” The plan would cap the school portion of property taxes at 5 percent of a household’s income and give taxpayers a credit for any taxes above that, capped at $3,000.

She calculates a family earning around the statewide average of $72,000 would see nearly $900 in savings.

Murphy has focused less on property taxes.

The central piece of his plan relies on fully funding the 2008 School Funding Reform Act formula, which the Christie administration has failed to finance over two terms, to the tune of about $1 billion a year.

School taxes make up the lion’s share of resident’s property tax bills, so providing more funding for the state’s roughly 600 school districts will ease property tax burdens, Murphy says.

“That is a game changer in anybody’s property tax reality. So that’s really the big gorilla issue,” he said recently.


WHAT THEY’RE NOT SAYING

Guadagno’s plan wouldn’t help everyone, and she admits it’s focused on giving relief to the middle class and seniors who’d benefit most. For example, a family making $140,000 in Morris County, a more affluent part of the state, wouldn’t see any savings under her plan.

She proposes financing the plan, estimated to cost about $1.5 billion, by realizing savings from state government through an audit as well through increased tax revenue from economic growth.

But it’s unclear whether those sources could cover the costs. Christie told Politico he doesn’t believe there’d be enough money from an audit to cover the cost.

Murphy’s plan relies about $1 billion in additional funding whose sources are unclear. He has called for raising taxes on millionaires, legalizing and taxing marijuana and closing corporate interest loopholes to finance his programs.

Some estimates put those combined tax changes around $1 billion, but possibly short depending on who’s estimating. Even so, he’s also proposing tuition-free community college, which he estimates costs $200 million, and expanding free pre-K and increasing payments to the public pension.


Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini


This is the first in an occasional series looking at issues ahead of the Nov. 7 election.