TRENTON – The second and final gubernatorial debate Tuesday night hit the typical wide span of topics – COVID, school aid, marijuana, diversity, affordable housing and more.

The fundamental issue of state taxes and spending also got attention in the hourlong debate, hosted on the campus of Rowan University in Glassboro and produced by NJ PBS. The event was a bit less raucous than the one held two weeks ago – but not much, as the crowd repeatedly jeered, cheered and interrupted.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli said New Jersey needs a tax system that works for everybody – and “right now, that’s not the case.”

“The governor’s budget is up $11 billion in four years’ time. That’s more than 30%. I don’t see any type of cost-cutting going on,” Ciattarelli said.

Gov. Phil Murphy said the state government has fewer employees now than on the day he took office. And he said spending is up primarily due to costs that used to be avoided for school aid and pensions, including the first full actuarially recommended payment into the retirement fund in 25 years.

“Why is the budget up?” Murphy said in response to Ciattarelli. “Think about if you were a family and you didn’t pay your mortgage or your rent. We inherited a complete and utter mess, and you were there for six years before I was.”

“And by the way,” Murphy said, “every dime of the millionaire’s tax has gone into the middle class for tax relief. Every dime.”

Ciattarelli said the state government is bloated, inefficient and corrupted by special interests like the New Jersey Education Association, the leading donor to pro-Murphy independent political committees. He said the 30% increase in state spending didn’t halt the rise in property taxes.

“He increased the budget $11 billion,” Ciattarelli said. “If he had cut everybody’s property taxes in half, I wouldn’t have run for governor. I would have endorsed him.”

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Pressed twice to identify specific spending cuts, Ciattarelli dodged, saying he would sit down with the Legislature to have that conversation on his first day in office. He did mention that Medicaid is the single biggest yearly budget expense: $15 billion, including federal funds.

“The budget is up $11 billion,” Ciattarelli said, repeating that data point. “So, just as it’s that easy to increase spending, I think it’s just as easy – we all sit down together, tighten the belt and find places to cut.”

Ciattarelli suggested that state spending should return to last budget year’s level – around $42 billion, rather than $46 billion.

Murphy similarly didn’t say how he’d balance future state budgets once federal aid and borrowed funds are unavailable, considering he pledged not to raise taxes. But he did say the more than $6 billion in federal COVID funds, including $3.8 billion still to be allocated, won’t go toward long-term programs.

“We’re going to spend this wisely,” Murphy said. “We’re not going to set programs up that leave the state holding the bag two or three years from now.”

Murphy said all the $4.2 billion the state got through COVID emergency borrowing is allocated. Some is going toward debt defeasance and avoidance – such as funding the state’s $250 million cost for a South Jersey wind turbine port without doing more borrowing.

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New Jersey’s general election is now in its home stretch, with early in-person voting starting in 10 days and Election Day itself in 20 days.

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