Tuesday night’s debate between the candidates vying for lieutenant governor in New Jersey bore one key difference from last week’s gubernatorial event: It was a largely cordial and orderly affair.
Retired, longtime Burlington County state Sen. and news anchor Diane Allen and current Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, the state’s first African American Assembly Speaker, squared off for an hour against each other at Rider University on Oct. 5.
Allen is running to be second-in-command for Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former state Assemblyman from Somerset County, while Oliver is running to keep her current title under Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat.
Gone was the loud and lively crowd in attendance when Murphy and Ciatterlli faced off last week at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Rather, the audience at Tuesday night’s affair was quiet and refrained from interruption.
Like last week’s debate, though, the lieutenant governor event offered few details on taxes, affordability and the state’s business climate.
Allen took a shot at Murphy’s pledge, made during the Sept. 28 debate, to not raise taxes in his next term, saying he could not possibly stay true to his word.
“Murphy said last Tuesday that he was not going to raise any taxes for the next four years. On Friday, he raised taxes $250 million a year on businesses,” she said.
The governor signed a law in January that would space out a series of tax increases on businesses over three years in order to replenish the state unemployment trust fund, which was drained amid record-high unemployment from the pandemic. That was opposed to the enactment of nearly $1 billion in tax increases all in one year, starting Oct. 1, which Murphy contended would provide some relief to employers. But Republican lawmakers, business groups and eventually some Democrats said that the state should use its federal funds under the American Rescue Plan to prevent the increases. Murphy resisted, and taxes went up.
“Every time we turn around [we] see a tax on new businesses and we see businesses leaving the state, and we aren’t going to have more revenue and more jobs,” Allen continued.
The topic of whether businesses are in fact leaving the state due to the high cost of living has been heavily disputed in the academic and political realms for years. Democrats and progressives in the state contend that New Jersey is the top destination for businesses because of its proximity to New York City, while Republicans and business groups say most employers simply can’t compete in the Garden State.
Many business groups NJBIZ interviewed said that the promise from Murphy not to increase taxes was, by itself, highly welcomed. “I can tell you that one single comment was something the business community was extremely pleased to hear,” said Tom Bracken, who heads the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “Now I guess you have to hold him to his word.”
Oliver contended that the state could in fact fund numerous social priorities while still maintaining smart budgeting.
“I’ve experienced being able to be socially progressive and fiscally responsible,” she said.
And she dismissed the Ciattarelli campaign as hardly offering any concrete policy views beyond complaints about property taxes.
“All I’ve heard from Ciattarelli and Allen are property taxes,” Oliver said. “That comes up in every election I’ve ever participated in for the past 40 to 50 years.”
Tuesday’s debate was moderated by David Wildstein, editor of NJ Globe and the admitted mastermind of the Bridgegate 2013 lane closure scandals, which rocked the second term of then-Gov. Chris Christie. He pled guilty to his role in the affair and testified in federal court against a staffer from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Bill Baroni, and an official from Christie’s office, Bridget Anne Kelly.