3 debate in NJ GOP gov's race

May 27, 2009 8:17:27 AM PDT
Two of the three Republican candidates for governor said they would eliminate the state's property tax rebates, which they called an unnecessary political gimmick, while the front-runner said he would keep sending the relief checks to millions of taxpayers.

"Isn't it great, they reward you with your own money," said Assemblyman Rick Merkt, of Mendham, during a live radio debate Tuesday.

He and conservative Steve Lonegan, of Bogota, said they'd do away with rebates while former federal prosecutor Chris Christie, also of Mendham, said the annual checks provide necessary relief against property taxes that average more than $7,000 a year, among the highest in the nation.

Facing a dire budget shortfall, Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat seeking re-election, has proposed suspending rebates for all but senior citizens and the disabled.

The 90-minute GOP exchange on 101.5 FM became fiery when Merkt challenged plans by Lonegan and Christie to lower taxes for businesses and most residents.

"I've put up with this from both sides for a while, and I'm getting tired of it," Merkt said. "Nothing can be done in this state regarding tax cuts without an act of the Legislature."

Merkt, who has been in the Assembly for 11 years, challenged the other two to abandon their "empty promise" of achieving tax cuts under a Democratic state Legislature. He urged them to focus on achievable goals.

Tuesday's debate was the first to include Merkt, who gave up an Assembly seat in a safe Republican district to run for governor. He has failed to raise enough money to qualify for matching funds, however, and his candidacy has failed to gain much traction. His role Tuesday was largely confined to that of spoiler to Christie, the clear leader, and Lonegan, who got within striking distance but has faded in recent polls.

Lonegan is trailing by abut 20 percentage points, according to two recent polls. Merkt is running a distant third. The winner of the June 2 primary will face Corzine in November.

Corzine's approval ratings have sunk to record lows as he struggles to close a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Merkt was not invited to two prior debates for publicly funded candidates but will be in the final debate Wednesday afternoon at WOR 710 AM.

The candidates Tuesday fielded questions on a range of topics and calls from radio listeners. All three said they would support legalizing sports betting in Atlantic City and agreed that parents should decide whether to vaccinate their children. But it was only at the end that the audience got a glimpse of who the candidates really are.

Lonegan said he reads philosophy and his most recent supermarket purchase was liverwurst, which he remembered because it stunk up the car. Christie has been coaching his son's baseball team long enough to watch the players grow from little boys to teenagers. And Merkt has been watching the stars for 50 years as an amateur astronomer.

A prior debate between Christie and Lonegan featured several exchanges in which each tried to portray himself as the more conservative on taxes and state spending.

The GOP winner faces an uphill fight against the far-wealthier incumbent governor. Christie and Lonegan are accepting public financing and are bound by spending limits, while the largely self-funded Corzine is not.

The makeup of New Jersey's electorate also benefits Corzine. Of 5.1 million registered voters last year, there are about 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans; nearly half are unaffiliated.

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