The Star-Ledger

Protesters Take Swipe At Budget Cuts

Statehouse ralliers: Tax the rich in Jersey

The Star-Ledger — Sunday, June 1, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

A sea of umbrellas and activists overtook a block of downtown Trenton yesterday as more than 2,000 people braved intermittent showers at the capitol complex to rally against state budget cuts.

Chanting "Stop the cuts, fund the future," the crowd decried the impact of budget cuts on schools and working-class families. They called on the governor and Legislature to soften the impact by raising funds through a "millionaire's tax," a tax increase for the state's wealthiest residents.

"We need a millionaire's tax in New Jersey to recapture the windfall," said Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective. "It's a 2 percent increase for just 2 percent of the households in New Jersey. The ones who've gotten the most back from state income tax cuts so far. The ones who've gotten the most back from federal income tax cuts so far. ... These are the people who the budget cuts hurt the least."

The tax plan is being heavily pitched by the Fairness Alliance, a coalition of more than 110 organizations that put together yesterday's "Uproar for Fairness" rally. The alliance was formed in March to promote tax increases for the wealthy as a way of mitigating the impact of deep budget cuts.

The group faces a difficult battle, as Gov. James E. McGreevey has said he will not raise state income or sales taxes when the economy is sour.

"It's just the wrong time to be looking at that," said Micah Rasmussen, the governor's spokesman, in a phone interview yesterday. "It's a bad recipe to raise taxes in bad economic times."

At yesterday's rally, however, many speakers called the timing for their plan perfect, arguing that the federal government's most recent tax cut will save the wealthiest the most money.

Joe Michaelson, an auditor in the state Treasury Department who came to the rally with a group from the Trenton union representing state workers, called the tax "a reasonable way" to deal with the budget shortfall. "This will be kind of a recapture for state purposes," he said.

Also in the crowd were hundreds of teachers and education union representatives from all over the state.

"When seas get rough, there's a reason we give our children the first seats in the lifeboats," said Edithe Fulton, president of the New Jersey Education Association. "Because when we threaten their future, we threaten our future as a society."

Teachers from Elizabeth said their positions were the most at-risk as a result of budget cuts. "Our kids don't come from Mendham and the nicest districts," said Dawn DiNardo-Lippi, a social worker at the Christa McAuliffe Middle School in Elizabeth. "We try to make a difference for them. To give them the tools so they can succeed."

Tom Favia, president of the Jersey City Education Association, said Jersey City schools are in danger of losing $70 million to $90 million if the proposed cuts go through. That's about 15 percent of the district's entire budget, Favia said, and represents a number of salaries. Laying off 500 teachers, he said, would result in only $20 million in savings.

"We understand the governor's position, but at the same time, there is some sort of relief if he would sign the millionaire's bill," he said The Fairness Alliance plan proposes increasing the state income tax from 6.37 percent to 7.5 percent for families earning $400,000 to $600,000; to 8.5 percent on families earning between $600,000 and $1 million and 9.5 percent on families earning more than $1 million a year. These rates would expire after three years.

The alliance projects the new tax structure would raise $972 million, based on 2001 state revenue figures, and would affect about 50,000 households.

Rasmussen said yesterday that the McGreevey administration hoped educators would recognize that the governor has gone out of his way to provide $200 million more in education aid this year when most governors are cutting education aid. "We're doing the best we can," Rasmussen said. "When it comes to those kind of impacts that people are talking about ... the budget certainly reflects the tough choices the governor has to make."

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