NEWARK — Property taxes took center stage at Tuesday’s first gubernatorial debate at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, cited particularly often by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in her first meeting with Democratic nominee Phil Murphy.

Guadagno said she has made just one promise in her campaign – to not seek re-election if property taxes aren’t lowered. She wants to put in place a ‘circuit breaker’ capping a homeowner’s school taxes at 5 percent of household income, saying that would save homeowners an average of $800.

“My platform quite simply is to lower property taxes on the people that need the tax lowered the most – the most vulnerable senior citizens, millennials and working-class families,” Guadagno said.

Murphy said 53 percent of property taxes go to schools, on average, so the solution is to fully fund the school-aid formula.

“We will fully fund public education in this state. It’s been underfunded by over $9 billion over the past almost eight years,” Murphy said.

Guadagno said “Phil Murphy has no plan for lowering property taxes” and implied Murphy would turn to tax increases to fund the school-aid formula.

“I suggest to the listeners out there tonight, or to the people in this room, to look to their right and look to their left because that $9 billion is coming from you if Phil Murphy is elected governor,” she said. “The people of New Jersey are taxed enough.”

Spending wouldn’t be increased by $9 billion a year; that’s Murphy’s estimation of the cumulative underfunding over eight years. He has proposed to increase taxes on income over $1 million to help fund education.

There were questions on other topics, as well, including an exchange about gun-control changes in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, immigration, climate change, marijuana, the minimum wage, keeping college graduates from leaving New Jersey and the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal.

Murphy said he had cancelled a planned fundraiser at which Weinstein, a prolific donor to Democratic political causes, was going to help raise money for his campaign.

But talk often drifted back to taxes, driven there by both the moderators and Guadagno.

Murphy said his decision on whether to support the extension of a 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards for police and fire salaries will be based on a report from the task force studying it due by the end of December, when the cap expires.

The members appointed by Christie put out a version, but it didn’t contain input from the union members appointed by lawmakers.

“We want to make that decision based on facts, making sure we don’t have just one side of the argument, but all sides together,” Murphy said.

Guadagno said there’s no need to wait and that she’d extend the arbitration cap.

“It saves the taxpayers of New Jersey billions of dollars. Not millions, but billions of dollars,” Guadagno said.

The report from the Christie-appointed members of the task force estimate the arbitration cap has saved taxpayers $530 million. It says all property tax related efforts since 2010, including a 2 percent cap on increases in property tax levies, has saved taxpayers $3 billion.

“We should make the decision on the 2 percent cap based on the facts, which we will do,” Murphy said. “… The biggest move on the board we can make is to fully fund education.”

“The facts are in,” Guadagno said, “that over the last eight years, the 2 percent cap along with the arbitration clause actually kept control over property taxes.”

After the debate, Murphy told reporters he agrees with Guadagno that property taxes are a big concern for residents.

“They care about property taxes. I think the record of this administration is abysmal. They’re up 17 percent, notwithstanding all their discussion about it. It’s the only answer that the lieutenant governor apparently could come back to, no matter what the question is.”

After the debate, both candidates said they were happy with the night.

“I loved every single second of it,” said Guadagno, a former state and federal prosecutor, who likened it to trying a case in court. “… If you don’t enjoy debating the issues, at least the ones I was talking about, then you shouldn’t be in this job.”

“Listen, debates are not easy. And so I think we got our message out. We held our own,” Murphy said. “The fact of the matter is I’m running against a person who’s been at Gov. Christie’s side for almost eight years. And so his record is her record. She has to own that record.”

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