On ballot: Expanding NJ property tax break to peacetime veterans
New Jersey voters are deciding in this election whether to expand the veterans’ property tax deduction by making veterans eligible for the $250 even if they didn’t serve during a time of war or emergency.
Last year, 76% of voters approved a somewhat similar constitutional amendment expanding the deduction to cover wartime veterans who live in continuing care retirement communities and weren’t eligible because they don’t directly own their homes.
With a presidential election and congressional races, the proposed amendment is receiving little campaign-season attention. It is also overshadowed by two other public questions on the ballot: one legalizing recreational marijuana, the other delaying legislative redistricting if census results come late.
“The proposed purpose of this constitutional amendment is to make sure that New Jersey veterans receive recognition for their deserved time that they served in our military, and our state to provide the same benefits that others are provided throughout the country, no matter what role you played or what time you served in the armed forces,” said Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker, D-Essex.
Tucker said the question is applicable especially to women veterans because up until 2015, they were ineligible to serve in combat zones.
“So they were never really considered veterans in the state of New Jersey because they didn’t have an opportunity to serve, at that time, in the war zone areas of whatever conflict was going on at that time,” she said.
Fiscal analysts with the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimate around 53,000 peacetime veterans will qualify for the deduction if the change is approved. If they each receive it, that would cost the state around $13.6 million to start.
“Money shouldn’t be used as a roadblock or an excuse not to vote 'yes' on this issue,” said Ken Hagemann, state adjutant and quartermaster for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “There is always enough money flowing out of this building for pet projects, to reward constituents and voter blocs or free college.”
Hagemann, who served as a Marine Corps sniper in combat operations in the Middle East in the 1980s, is among those who are ineligible for the deduction. Worse, he said, people he served with that were killed or wounded also aren’t considered veterans by the state.
“It’s time for New Jersey to stop classifying veterans and get in line with the 49 other states and grant every veteran — without regard of dates of service — the same benefits and opportunities,” Hagemann said.
Luddie Austin, junior vice commander for the VFW, said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he was deployed to protect the Holland Tunnel and Salem nuclear power plant – but that had he not later been deployed to Iraq, he wouldn’t have qualified for the property tax deduction.
Austin said his daughter officially changed her residency to Tennessee from New Jersey while she was stationed there as a member of the Army because of the better benefits Tennessee provides veterans.
“So it’s not only the veterans who are here in New Jersey who we should be looking out for, we should be looking out for those who are actively in the military from the state of New Jersey, wanting them to return back to the state of New Jersey once they complete their military service,” Austin said. “And this would draw veterans back into the state of New Jersey.”
The constitutional amendment would also expand eligibility for its disabled veterans’ property tax exemption to include peacetime veterans. OLS forecasts around 4,300 veterans would benefit and that the change would shift $38 million in property taxes to non-exempt taxpayers.
New Jersey has different eligibility thresholds for its various veterans’ benefits. The state exempts $6,000 of a veteran’s income from state income taxes, doubled under a law enacted last year, and that program is available to a wider group of around 400,000 eligible veterans.
Last year, around 160,000 veterans and veterans’ widows received the $250 property tax deduction.
The property tax deduction is written into the 1947 state constitution, which is why any changes to it require a public vote.
Nearly three-fourths of the last 80 years have been periods of active wartime, as defined by the state.
The longest inactive period was the seven-plus years between the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the start of the Lebanon peacekeeping mission of 1982. There has been a conflict continuously – either in Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq or Afghanistan – since August 1992.
The state also recognizes work by military members in the World Trade Center recovery and cleanup between September 2001 and May 2002 as active wartime service.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at email@example.com.