Many New Jerseyans have long been dissatisfied with the structure of their tax system–a system which relies very heavily on local property taxes. The result is a distribution of the tax burden among individuals and jurisdictions that is widely believed to be unfair and inequitable. Many citizens, business leaders, and current and former public officials shared a frustration with the inability of elected officials–indeed, of the political system itself-to resolve this longstanding issue. In 2003, a New Jersey based grass-roots organization called Coalition for the Public Good turned to Public Agenda for help in creating a different kind of forum in which residents from across the state could engage complex questions of tax reform and demonstrate that reasonable solutions to the current gridlock are possible.
Specifically, Public Agenda helped the Coalition for the Public Good to organize and conduct a major statewide “Citizen’s Tax Assembly,” a two-day event held in the capitol building in Trenton in September 2003. The New Jersey Citizens’ Tax Assembly brought together close to 100 diverse “delegates” from every county in the state to engage one another in a dialogue on possible approaches to tax reform.
Public Agenda created print and video Choicework discussion starter materials for the two-day assembly, and trained moderators and recorders who facilitated small discussion groups throughout the assembly–engaging participants in the detailed analysis and negotiations concluding in a set of concerns, values, priorities and recommendations.
The Coalition for the Public Good produced a report on the assembly and took their recommendations directly to the New Jersey Legislature in a set of special hearings. In June 2004, the coalition held an additional statewide follow-up assembly, in which the same delegates reassembled to continue refining their recommendations and to tackle the issues in more detail. More recently, in October 2004, the group organized four regional tax forums (in Cherry Hill, New Brunswick, Jersey City and Morristown), each with its own set of delegates, in order to expand the number of citizens involved in the process of deliberation. Currently, the coalition is working to influence the findings of a new task force recently created by the state legislature to consider holding a property tax constitutional convention.
Clearly, the citizens of New Jersey are willing and able to partner with the state’s leaders and elected officials and take action on this complex and contentious issue.