SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- A panel of five state legislators created a prevailing air of equanimity as 90 members of the Greater Westfield Area Chamber of Commerce and guests gathered at Shackamaxon Country Club Tuesday morning for networking at a breakfast and an hour-long panel discussion on current state concerns. Hosted by the GWACC, Republicans and Democrats put their heads together to discuss legislative solutions to a myriad of issues for their constituents, starting with New Jersey’s sagging infrastructure.
The panel, consisting of Senator Tom Kean, Jr. (R); Senator Richard Codey, former Governor (D); Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R); Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D); and Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D) was moderated by Stephanie Branna, GWACC legislative chair.
Addressing infrastructure needs, Senator Kean suggested, “We can focus on the third rail between here and New York for starters,” explaining the preponderance of commuters from this area who would benefit.
Assemblyman Mukherji chimed in, “This is an incredibly important issue that transcends party lines,” and then he tossed in, “But first we are going to have to identify the Westfield ‘Watcher.’” The audience roared.
“New Jersey Transit is one example where we have reduced the subsidies and fares have increased,” Mukherji continued. “Attention should be focused on rail and bus services which need improvement, plus bridges and roads are in desperate need of repair.”
As the topic was kicked back and forth, no simple answers emerged, only agreement that Republicans and Democrats have to work together to find ways to resolve the infrastructure problems without creating an even greater tax burden than already exists.
Assemblyman Bramnick spoke about his support of the 23 percent gas tax.
“I am proud of that,” he said. “We also got the elimination of the estate tax through. I think it’s essential to the state. And we got the exemptions for the vets and we must have another tunnel.”
He then made a point that generated applause: “Campaigning is a lot easier than governing. It’s become too easy to attack today.”
Moderator Branna asked the panel, “How do parties work together to get these things accomplished?”
Senator Codey bridged the gap between parties.
“Republicans are very supportive,” he said. “The six new lanes were started in my administration. It’s not hard to get along with people as long as you respect each other. I like people who are kind to other people,” he said. Those sentiments caused no argument.
The next topic on pension fund dollars, began with the pertinent question: Where did they go?
Bramnick said, “At some point we have to change what the benefits are and realign our thinking. There’s no consensus in the legislature.”
Codey injected an example of the realities.
“Some people make $30,000 a year and pay about $4,000 for those funds. Not fair. The sales tax now is 6.78 percent. How many people don't even know that?” Kean raised his hand with a big smile, gaining a big laugh. Then Codey got his own laugh: “My ancestors came to this country on a boat,” he said. “Tom’s ancestors owned their own boat!”
Kean countered, “You want people to be able to live and work in New Jersey. If the goal posts are being moved, there is unpredictability. To avoid whiplash, people are moving to Pennsylvania and New York, and that’s not for the weather,” he offered. “Let's find common ground. We have to get back to the days when a handshake meant something.”
The discussion shifted to the possibility of Amazon moving its base to New Jersey, a distinct possibility. The state is offering five billion dollars in tax breaks over a 10-year period to entice the corporation. Senator Codey burst in, “That's way too much.” Assemblyman Mukherji echoed Amazon’s sales pitch that the Amazon move to New Jersey “would result in thousands of new jobs.” But is that feasible or realistic?
If this major Amazon move to New Jersey is to happen, Bramnick said, “A gradual incentivizing increase would be recommended.”
Assemblywoman Pinkin piped in, “We have to have the image that we are a stable state. We need to see what the new administration will do. Come early spring, the governor is going to face a shortfall.”
Senator Kean expressed his concern.
“Other states have stable rates,” he said. “Our tax structure is inconsistent. We need to make sure our tax structure is consistent. We need regularity in our tax structure. We need consistent policies.”
A completely unexpected suggestion arose: Merging communities for greater financial stability and to minimize wasting taxes. Pinkin posed a possibility: “Westfield could merge with Garwood,” she said. She was not joking, although laughter rang out in the large hall.
“We have to get to the hard solutions,” Pinkin said. “Merging municipalities is a way to gain a tax advantage.”
Kean brought up the fact that the “population in New Jersey is declining, forcing people to make decisions they should not be required to make because of the affordable housing requirements.”
Bramnick offered his perspective.
“The whole thing is absurd,” he stated, of making each town provide a certain number of affordable units based on population. His solution: “Decisions should not be town by town. It should be regional.”
The floor was briefly opened to questions from the audience. One woman complained bitterly. Her family moved to Westfield in 1963. Since then, their taxes have escalated to $16,000 for a three-bedroom house, forcing the retired couple to sell. They found it very complicated to apply for the program to freeze taxes. Kean asked them to see him when the program ended and he’d tell them how to apply.
The GWACC event inspired no rancor among the participants. Instead, it substantiated the wish of Senator Codey that each legislator would be kind to the other. That was achieved with no abstainers.