Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert has decided to hold field hearings around the country to see what Americans think about the immigration issue that has dominated so much of Congress's time this year.

If one of those hearings is held in New Jersey, the message he will get is "not much."

According to a survey by the Quinnipiac University poll, New Jersey's voters say that the most serious problem facing their state isn't the budget deficit, terrorism or Mexican immigrants. It is taxes -- on their homes, their purchases and at the gas pump. This was the overwhelming response to an open-ended polling question that allowed respondents to give any answer they chose, without prompting from the pollsters. No other issue -- not the economy, health care, crime, government spending or even the tide of illegal immigration -- came close, the Quinnipiac poll reported this month.

When asked, "What do you think is the most important problem facing New Jersey today?" a whopping 47 percent said taxes -- a percentage that was higher than any problem ever listed in any previous Quinnipiac statewide or national poll. That 47 percent included 19 percent who said all taxes, 26 percent who said property taxes and 1 percent who singled out gas taxes.

"Almost half of New Jersey voters, an unprecedented number, say taxes are the biggest problem facing the state, and most of them mean property taxes," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

That response, six times the nearest issue named (immigration drew a 2 percent response), has deep political implications for Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who has ignited an angry taxpayer revolt with his proposal to raise the hated state sales tax to 7 percent.

It also has a potential spillover effect in the ever-tightening U.S. Senate race, where Republican state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. has made taxes a big issue in his bid to oust Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez in November.

Kean's campaign advisers think that voter anger over Corzine's sales-tax hike and rising property taxes -- combined with Menendez's reluctance to criticize Corzine, who named him to fill his remaining term in the Senate -- will help Republicans cut into the state's heavily Democratic electorate.

Polls show the Democrats are just as angry over Corzine's push for higher taxes -- and former Congressman Menendez's voting record in the House reveals a lawmaker who never met a tax increase he didn't like.

To give you an idea of the state's turbulent political environment under Corzine's soak-the-taxpayers governorship, when Quinnipiac asked "How satisfied are you with the way things are going in New Jersey today?" only 3 percent said "very satisfied," while nearly 70 percent said "dissatisfied."

While the level of complaints on the issues can vary widely from state to state, New Jersey's property tax revolt mirrors complaints in other states where it is a looming though underreported issue -- including Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

For Corzine, who won the governorship last year on a promise to enact property tax relief, his inaction thus far, followed by his sales-tax hike, has turned much of New Jersey's heavily Democratic electorate against him.

Only 39 percent of voters approve of the overall job he is doing, and 70 percent say they now do not believe he will reduce property taxes as he pledged in his campaign.

"For two years now, we've been polling on this issue and found New Jersey's voters consider property taxes the worst tax of all, and time and again they have been promised relief and nothing has happened," Richards told me.

Corzine's tax troubles recalled the experiences of another New Jersey Democrat, Gov. James Florio, whose $2.8 billion tax hike in 1990 led to his defeat in 1993 at the hands of Republican Christine Todd Whitman.

Corzine won't be up for re-election until 2009, but New Jersey voters can send him a message in November by rejecting Menendez and putting Kean in the Senate. A little more than four months before the election, polls show a close race -- a sign that the tax issue is playing in the GOP's favor.

Meanwhile, Hastert's plan to hold field hearings around the country on the widely differing House and Senate-passed immigration bills is nothing more than a delaying tactic to avoid any further votes on this issue until after the midterm elections.

House Republicans have staked their ground on border enforcement only, one that leaves their party's base happy and keeps the Senate's broader guest worker/earned amnesty bill at bay. No one in the House GOP's leadership wants to risk angering its conservative base in a volatile election year by seeking a compromise with the Senate that now seems impossible to achieve anyway.

Better, say Republican leaders, to put the immigration reform issue off until next year when the elections are safely behind them.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.