`FOR too long, middle-class taxpayers have paid the freight,'' says New Jersey Gov. James Florio in one of a series of radio commercials being played on New Jersey airwaves this week. ``The Democrats and I are fighting to change that,'' Mr. Florio says in this unusual radio campaign designed to convince New Jersey's middle-class voters that the governor's tax plan will benefit them.
Core elements of the tax plan - higher income-tax rates for the wealthy and a 1 percent hike in the sales-tax rate - were approved Wednesday night by the State Senate.
Also passed by the Senate and ready for Florio's signature is a bill shifting the bulk of state school aid to poor and lower middle-income districts.
The program pushed through by Florio, who promised not to seek new taxes in campaigning for governor last year, doubles - from 3.5 to 7 percent - the state's top income-tax rate, for individuals earning more than $75,000 a year and couples making more than $150,000.
Individuals making from $40,000 to $75,000, will see their taxes rise to 6.5 percent.
Families whose total income is $70,000 to $80,000 will see their income-tax rate go up to 5 percent.
Florio plans to use the resulting $1.1 billion raise in state revenue to provide increased funds for some 350 public school districts. At the same time, 151 middle- and upper-class school districts will lose almost all their state funding over a four-year period. Rebates for some families
Florio says the new school-aid reform package will lower property tax rates in many poorer and middle-class communities. But all state residents will be paying more sales taxes as part of Florio's $1.3-billion increase in new sales taxes.
The state's basic sales tax goes from 6 to 7 percent. Phone bills will be subject to a tax. There will be increased sales taxes on cigarettes, gasoline, alcohol, janitorial services, and paper products.
Florio says he did not want to raise taxes but was left with a $1.9 billion deficit by New Jersey's outgoing Republican governor, Tom Kean.
Although budget shortfalls were widely predicted during the gubernatorial campaign because of a sluggish Northeast economy, Florio insisted there would be no need for new taxes.
Mr. Kean asserts that Florio is raising taxes far beyond what might be needed to erase a state deficit.
Republican Assemblyman John Rooney, who represents Bergen County, the state's richest, says Florio's definition of middle-class is too limited. ``I don't think a husband and wife each earning $50,000 with two kids going to college necessarily make that much money,'' Mr. Rooney says. ``But people like that are going to be hurt by the Florio plan.''
And as for the wealthy, says Rooney, ``they're not going to take it. There's going to be a mass exodus to Connecticut and other places with lower taxes.''
Florio's school-aid package is tied into a decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court in early June. The court ruled that financing schools by primarily relying on local property taxes was fundamentally unequal. The court said there is an unconstitutional gap between the state's 28 poorest urban school districts and richer districts. It ordered New Jersey to provide enough state aid to raise poorer districts closer to the level of spending by richer districts.
But Florio did not wait until the court decision to reveal his school-reform program. He announced his school-aid reform package some four months before the court decision came down.
``He has been courageous,'' says Richard Roper, director of the Program for New Jersey Affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs. ``Most politicians would have waited until the Supreme Court decision. Then he could have said the court forced him to raise taxes.''
Florio says he went ahead on issues like school-financing reform because it was the right thing to do. ``The aim is to restore fairness to a system that today discriminates against children living in districts with lower levels of property wealth,'' he says.
Democrats in Washington are closely watching Florio's tax program.
``Jim Florio has set up a test case for the entire Democratic Party,'' says US Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey. Democrats have been intimidated in the past decade by the politics and rhetoric of the Reagan era, he says.
``He is being watched because he represents either the last defeat of a terrible decade, or our first success story in a new time when politics in America can be redefined.''
Florio's tax plan caps a rather incredible first six months in office. In that short time he has signed into law the nation's toughest measure baring assault weapons and a bill designed to lower auto insurance rates by 20 percent.
He has blocked scheduled toll increases on the New Jersey Turnpike and the tunnels and bridges that run between New York and New Jersey. And he has bounced entrenched state officials, including the superintendent of the State Police, who served for 15 years during both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Republican opposition to the tax plan was solid, but the Democrats control both the Assembly and Senate.
Both houses passed the governor's $12.4-billion budget on Tuesday, and the Assembly also approved his tax plan. Overall approval of the package is expected by the end of June.