Candidates for NJ governor get 1 last debate

October 22, 2009 7:57:16 PM PDT
There were no laugh lines in the last debate before Election Day among the three main candidates for governor of New Jersey, but there was plenty of tussling over the nagging issues of property taxes and corruption. The debate, held at Newark jazz radio station WBGO and aired on public radio across the state, was light on improvisation. Instead, Republican Chris Christie, Democratic Incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine and Independent Chris Daggett restated the cases they've been making for months.

The race, one of only two governor's seats in the nation to be filled this year, looks very close. Recent polls have showed Christie and Corzine statistically tied. A Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released Thursday showed Daggett with his most support so far: 20 percent.

For Corzine, the debate was another opportunity to try to persuade voters that he has helped the persistently vexing property tax situation even though he cut state rebates to more than 1 million taxpayers and the average bill has now passed $7,000.

The governor took credit for expanding a program that freezes the property taxes of some senior citizens and that has slowed the growth of the state's highest-in-the-nation property taxes the last two years.

There's now a 4 percent gap on property tax increases for local governments and school boards. Corzine said he would lower it further if needed. He also said he would restore property tax rebates to households earning up to $250,000.

"We already have a cap on property tax levies at a local level," he said. "We have to keep looking for every possible consolidation and reduction in costs."

For Christie, the debate was a chance to lay out an entirely different vision that includes a pledge to restore property tax rebates and to make cutting other taxes a priority. He said that he would build his state budgets in a new way - and no program would get an automatic exemption from cuts.

"It is not going to be a program that's going to be fixed with a silver bullet," Christie said.

Daggett, a former state and federal environmental protection official, continued to push a plan that would change the tax system. He wants to extend the sales tax to more services and use the extra revenue mostly to slash local property taxes.

He opened with sharp criticism of both major-party candidates, saying Corzine "led our state to near fiscal ruin," and said Christie is running "a campaign that's without substance and lacking in intellectual integrity."

The debate also turned to corruption on the day former Bergen County Democratic chairman Joseph Ferriero was found guilty of conspiracy and mail fraud.

Christie, who as U.S. Attorney oversaw Ferriero's indictment, blamed Corzine for enabling him by donating $400,000 to the Bergen County party organization.

A clearly perturbed Corzine said he stood up to Ferriero and called Christie's accusation "just a joke."

Daggett said both of the other candidates use money to skirt fair political practices: Corzine by spending so much of his fortunes on politics and Christie because his brother donated $200,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which is running television ads attacking Corzine and Daggett.

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