N.J. is sending ANCHOR property tax rebate checks right before the election. Some pro-democracy watchdog groups question the timing

Voters “need to feel that Trenton is a transparent, accessible, accountable place,” advocacy groups say.

File photo: New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

File photo: New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

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Many Garden State residents began receiving money after Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Oct. 11 the second round of ANCHOR property tax relief payments. Some pro-democracy groups believe the timing was less than ideal.

“The question here has to do with whether or not folks are feeling like the checks so close to election day is an issue,” said Jesse Burns, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

At 2.23 %, New Jersey’s effective tax rate is the highest in the country, according to the Tax Foundation’s analysis. Under the Affordable New Jersey Communities for Homeowners and Renters program, known as ANCHOR, most senior homeowners have received payments of $1,750, while older renters have collected $700, right before the Nov. 7 general election.

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Heather Ferguson, director of state operations for the watchdog group Common Cause, said checks distributed 30 days before the election can lead to a public perception problem.

“Everyone needs to take a lot of caution in ensuring that the perception is not that there are different tactics being used for electioneering purposes or to influence the vote,” she said. “The perception of a move like this, to send money to voters in the 30 days just preceding an election could certainly raise some suspicions.”

Burns agreed. Even if the timing was well intentioned, it still dampens good will, she said.

Burns stressed that voters in the state need to feel that “Trenton is a transparent, accessible, accountable place, and there’s a general mood in the state that’s not true.”

She said property tax relief has always been a big issue in the Garden State. Moving forward, Burns said, elected officials should balance constituents’ needs with good principles of public policy — especially during campaign season.

The major issues in this year’s election are parental rights in schools and reproductive justice, not property taxes, Burns said, so the ANCHOR checks may not have an impact on voters.

Peter Chen, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, said what’s important is the tax relief program itself and not the timing of check distribution.

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“Benefits that go disproportionally to homeowners are still going disproportionally to wealthier residents, but we are glad to see the expanded renter credit, particularly for senior renters,” he said.

Chen said the problem with any property tax rebates is that they all have different deadlines, reference amounts, and can be very complicated.

Jennifer Sciortino, senior advisor for strategic communications for the governor’s office, said the goal was to provide relief to taxpayers quickly.

“The Division of Taxation has been able to distribute ANCHOR payments on an expedited timeline this season because they now possess validated essential data to align ownership, mailing addresses, and direct deposit information from last season’s eligible recipients within its online ANCHOR filing system,” she said.

Last season, the challenge was verifying this information from the expanded numbers of eligible recipients, she added.

Sciortino said that going forward, the state expects to distribute ANCHOR payments in the fall.

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