A key New Jersey Senate committee yesterday voted to repeal nearly $3 billion of taxes, even as new projections released this week predict the state's fiscal 1992 budget gap will reach at least $700 million.
The 5-to-1 vote by the Revenue, Finance and Appropriations Committee came amid a continuing boycott of the session by the panel's three Republicans, who consider the tax rollback a political ploy by lame-duck Democrats, Senate sources said.
The committee's action moves the various repeal measures to the full Senate for a vote, which could come as early as Monday, when the upper chamber is next scheduled to meet.
The ongoing Republican boycott of the repeal debate has so far stymied efforts to introduce companion proposals in the Assembly, where a committee this week was unable to achieve the necessary quorum to introduce the bills. But legislative sources say some Democrats who support the repeal were absent from the attempt to reach a quorum, and will be available next week to get the bills introduced.
Gov. Jim Florio this week said he would consider signing tax repeal legislation, but only if it does not hurt New Jersey's fiscal condition or the quality of the state's public schools -- the two issues that prompted this record-breaking tax increase package last year.
Under the provision of the bills now under consideration, all $2.8 billion of tax increases passed last year would "sunset" on June 30, the end of fiscal 1992, unless the incoming Republican-controlled Legislature votes to continue them.
Republicans have so far said they only support one rollback proposal -- to drop the sales tax back to 6% from the 7% approved last year. That would present the new Legislature with a hole in next year's budget of almost $600 million.
But lawmakers may have more immediate budget problems to tackle. On Wednesday, the chairman of the Senate finance committee, Laurence S. Weiss, D-Middlesex, predicted the state's fiscal 1992 budget would fall at least $700 million short of projections. Other unofficial estimates have put the figure closer to $1 billion.
State officials say revenue projections for the first half of the year, which were based on extremely conservative estimates of the economy, are right on target. But New Jersey bet an economic recovery would appear in the second half to stimulate revenues, and most analysts say they are pessimistic a recovery will materialize in time to generate the kind of revenue the administration's second half projections envision. Last year's tax increase was projected to generate about $2.8 billion, but the actual take is expected to be much lower.
Senate Democrats said they do not believe the tax repeal proposals are bad fiscal policy in a time of looming deficits, because the plan would give the new Legislature more than six months to come up with spending cuts or tax renewals to balance the budget.
Still, one Democratic committee member, Sen. Gerald R. Stockman of Mercer County, voted yesterday against moving the repeal proposals to the full Senate. Sen. Stockman, who was defeated in a Republican sweep of the Legislature last month, said the idea was "tempting, but just doesn't meet the test of common sense and good judgment."
He added that tax repeal "introduces an element of political chaos" to a process already roiled by recession and looming budget shortfalls.