In New Jersey, opponents of progressive taxation, including Governor Christie, argue that tax rates are too high. Indeed, just a month before he filed his 2009 tax returns, the governor said he intends to lower income tax rates within two years in order to stimulate the economy and make New Jersey more competitive with neighboring states.
But a full understanding of the state’s tax structure shows that New Jersey is already quite competitive. And Governor Christie’s own 2009 New Jersey income tax return shows the truth often isn’t as simple as it seems. Even though their household income pushed them into the top bracket of 10.25%, the Christies actually paid just 6.2% of their family income to the state.
Much can be learned from an income tax return, which is why the average person’s return is generally not available for public scrutiny. Many politicians, however, make their returns public during their time in office to prove they are solid tax-paying citizens – just like the rest of us.
Such is the case with the governor. The governor has made his tax return available for public perusal. The document is quite useful in illustrating how New Jersey’s marginal income tax rates work.
In 2009, the Christie’s New Jersey taxable income was $540,792, including $527,069 in wages from Mrs. Christie’s part-time job at Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street bank and brokerage firm. The governor, who resigned as U.S. Attorney to campaign, did not have a salary.
The Christies paid $33,619 in New Jersey income taxes. To most, that sounds like a substantial sum, but it amounted to 6.2% of their New Jersey taxable income, considerably less than one would expect them to pay given their 10.25% tax bracket.
How does this work? It’s all about the margins.
New Jersey taxes income at different rates as income increases. Many believe this is the more appropriate way to tax income than a flat tax rate on all income, but it can be confusing. Current rates for married couples range from 1.4% on income of less than $20,000 to 8.97% on income of more than $500,000. Married couples who earn less than $20,000 pay no income tax in New Jersey.
In 2009, New Jersey had slightly different brackets as a result of a temporary rate increase enacted by lawmakers. The top marginal income tax rate was 10.75% on income of more than $1 million; 10.25% on income between $500,000 and $1 million; and 8% on income over $400,000 but less than $500,000.
New Jersey, unlike some other states, does not allow for many deductions. As a result, the Christies could not lower their taxable income by the $36,866 in property taxes they paid in 2009 for their nearly 7,000-square-foot house valued at $1.8 million in Mendham.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed legislation that would have maintained the higher income tax rates on the state’s richest residents and tied those increases to the property tax rebate program. But the governor vetoed the bills because he said income tax rates in New Jersey are too high. So, the rates for 2010 reverted back to the 2008 level when the top rate was 8.97% on income over $500,000.
In effect, the governor gave himself a $2,151 tax cut.
Rather than arguing over whether the current 8.97% top marginal rate on the richest people in the state is too high, the discussion we should be having in this state is whether it’s too much to ask the wealthiest families, those like the Christies who claim a net worth of $3.8 million, to pay 6.2% (or 5.8% under current tax rates) of their income to support public services in New Jersey.