N.J. GOP gubernatorial candidates, fighting ‘Christie fatigue,’ debate tax, climate proposals

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GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Republican gubernatorial candidates Kim Guadagno and Jack Ciattarelli sparred over competing property tax relief plans and their political records in their first debate Tuesday, as they sought to separate themselves from a deeply unpopular governor.

Ciattarelli, a state assemblyman and businessman from Somerset County, accused Guadagno, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor and the frontrunner ahead of next month’s primary, of basing her $1.5 billion tax relief plan on “false savings and phantom revenues.”

Guadagno, who says she would find savings through an “audit” of state government, countered that Ciattarelli’s plan “fails for 600 million reasons” because he would raise that much through new income tax brackets on higher earners. Ciattarelli said his plan “doesn’t increase anyone’s overall tax bill.”

The attacks in the Stockton University auditorium went beyond policy as Ciattarelli criticized Guadagno’s role in Gov. Christie’s administration, arguing that “no Republican” in the state had been more critical of Christie than he had.

I never had to say that I had to walk down the hall and ask for permission before I could disagree with the governor,” he said, after Guadagno said she had voiced opposition “on more than one occasion” to Christie.

Guadagno, in turn, called Ciattarelli “disingenuous at best” for voting for Christie and supporting the governor’s unsuccessful presidential bid, and accused the assemblyman of opposing the recent Christie-backed gas-tax increase to help his run for governor.

Political observers say it may be difficult for a Republican to win New Jersey’s top job in November. “It’s Christie fatigue,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “Christie has really dragged down the Republican Party.” The unpopularity of President Trump in New Jersey also “makes it hard for a Republican to break through,” he said.

Guadagno, a former Monmouth County sheriff, has led Ciattarelli in polls — with 23 percent of GOP voters to Ciattarelli’s 12 percent in a recent Quinnipiac survey — and in fundraising. She has also won the party line on ballots in more counties than Ciattarelli has.

But a lot of voters remain undecided and “it’s a lot harder” for Guadagno to separate herself from Christie, Murray said.

The battle for the Republican nomination is “not about who has the better property tax plan; it’s who is more credible,” Murray said. “Part of that credibility is who has been more of the Christie lap dog.”

Referring to her role in the administration — though not with her title — Guadagno said she had spent “the last 7 1/2 years as a job creator.” She touted job growth and the drop in unemployment, but even so, she said people “can’t afford to live here any longer.”

She pledged to make property tax relief a priority. Guadagno has proposed capping the school portion of a resident’s property-tax bill at 5 percent of household income, giving taxpayers a credit for any amount owed in excess of that limit.

Ciattarelli argues that the state can’t deliver property tax relief without changing the school-funding system and its “inequitable distribution” of funding.

Both Guadagno and Ciattarelli said they support changes to aid the underfunded state pension system, endorsing a proposal Christie had pushed that would curb worker benefits.

On the possible repeal of the federal Affordable Care Act, Guadagno called the GOP health-care bill that passed the House of Representatives last week a “disaster.” Ciattarelli expressed concern about Medicaid coverage but said he would “reserve judgment” until the U.S. Senate passed a bill.

The two disagreed on a regional pact to reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change, which Christie withdrew New Jersey from. Guadagno said the state should rejoin the cap-and-trade initiative, while Ciattarelli said doing so would put New Jersey at a competitive disadvantage.

They also differed on Guadagno’s call for an elected attorney general, which she said would ensure the position’s independence, and which Ciattarelli said would make it “beholden to party bosses.”

The second and final debate will be May 18 in Newark. The primary is June 6.

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