Jim Florio, New Jersey Governor Undone by Tax Hike, Dies at 85

Jim Florio, who was elected governor of New Jersey in 1989 by persuading voters that he would not raise state taxes but who then pushed through a record increase shortly after taking office, incurring public wrath that led to his defeat in his bid for a second term, died on Sunday. He was 85.

His law partner Douglas Steinhardt announced the death on Twitter on Monday but did not specify the cause or place of death.

The nation was facing a worsening economy and New Jersey the prospect of a yawning budget deficit when Mr. Florio, then an eight-term Democratic congressman, insisted during his campaign that he would balance the budget only by cutting waste in state spending.

But two months after taking office in January 1990 he proposed a budget that called for sharp increases in income and sales taxes totaling more than $2.5 billion, in addition to deep cuts in most state services.

He had no choice, he said. On taking a close look at the state’s books after he took office, he said, it was plain that just cutting spending would not be enough to balance the budget. Mr. Florio said tax-revenue projections by the previous Republican administration of Gov. Thomas H. Kean Sr. had been grossly overstated, even “phony,” and made even the deep spending cuts he proposed insufficient by themselves.

Public reaction was harsh. Many New Jerseyans felt betrayed, asserting that Mr. Florio had broken a firm pledge not to increase taxes. Many fellow Democratic politicians expressed shock at the extent of the proposed increases, and some budget experts said that Mr. Florio had ignored evidence during the campaign that tax increases would be unavoidable.

Ultimately, however, the Democratic-controlled State Senate and Assembly approved his plan by slim margins.

More popular were his successes in enacting auto-insurance reform aimed at lowering the steep premiums that the state’s residents had been paying; pushing for property-tax relief for many middle-income homeowners, a measure approved by the State Legislature; and appointing an environmental prosecutor to crack down on the state’s notoriously polluting industries.

Mr. Florio also won legislation to ban semiautomatic assault weapons, then prevailed over intense efforts led by the National Rifle Association to have the law repealed. And he successfully pushed a bill that shifted a substantial amount of state aid from affluent public school districts to lower and moderate-income ones — a measure that proved widely divisive.

But the tax increases were his undoing. Feeding off voters’ anger, Republicans for the first time in two decades gained control of both houses of the legislature in 1991, and in a close election two years later, Mr. Florio was denied a second term by Christine Todd Whitman, a former Somerset County freeholder and scion of a prominent New Jersey family who became the state’s first woman governor.

To his supporters, Mr. Florio — who preferred to be called Jim, and the news media obliged — was a tough-minded liberal with an independent streak. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation gave him its Profile in Courage Award in 1993. Mr. Florio, the foundation said, had shown “courageous political leadership in gun control, education and economic reform,” including having “risked political and public criticism when he swiftly and boldly restructured the state’s income tax system.”

Detractors called Mr. Florio stiff-necked. He shrugged off that assessment in his speech accepting the Profile in Courage Award, saying: “The first thing I learned as governor is that you can’t please everybody. The second thing I learned is some days you can’t please anybody. So be it.”

Mr. Florio had won the governorship after two previously unsuccessful races for the office during the 15 years he served in Congress, where he made a name nationally as an environmental protection advocate. Most prominently, he helped spearhead the 1980 Superfund legislation to clean up dangerous toxic waste dumps and chemical spills across the country.

In Congress, representing the Camden area, he gained a reputation as a hard worker and a frugal one.

“My philosophy has always been, I have one pair of shoes because I have one pair of feet,” he said at the time. “My father always worked, always worked very hard. It is just beyond comprehension that anyone would not.”

James Joseph Florio was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 29, 1937.His father was a shipyard painter.

Mr. Florio dropped out of high school to serve in the Navy, where he earned a high school equivalency diploma. He was also an amateur boxer, an avocation that left him with a permanently sunken left cheekbone. He later served in the Navy Reserve for 17 years, rising to lieutenant commander.

Mr. Florio graduated from Trenton State College (today the College of New Jersey) in 1962 and from Rutgers Law School in 1967. While in college he married Maryanne Spaeth. The marriage ended in divorce,and in 1988he married Lucinda Coleman.

Information about Mr. Florio’s survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Florio began practicing law in Camden, became active in local politics and served in the State Assembly in the 1970s. He lost a race for Congress in 1972 to the Republican incumbent, John E. Hunt. But in a return match two years later he defeated Mr. Hunt and served in the House until he was elected governor in 1989.

He first ran for governor in 1977 as one of nine Democrats seeking to unseat a fellow Democrat, Gov. Brendan T. Byrne. Mr. Byrne defeated them in the primary and then prevailed in the general election.

Mr. Florio ran again in 1981, winning the Democratic nomination but losing the general election to Mr. Kean, a moderate Republican, by a hair — fewer than 2,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast.

In 1989, Mr. Florio easily won the Democratic nomination and then handily defeated his Republican opponent, Rep. James A. Courter. As the highly conservative Mr. Courter took a hard line against big government and taxes, Mr. Florio called himself part of “the sensible center” who would pursue policies like fighting pollution and steep auto insurance rates while holding the line on taxes.

In seeking re-election in 1993, Mr. Florio had no Democratic primary opponent, even as polls had long suggested that he was unlikely to win in the general election. But as the race with Ms. Whitman heated up, polls showed it had tightened in the weeks before Election Day.

Mr. Florio charged that Ms. Whitman, who had not held an elected post above the county level, was too inexperienced to run the state and that, coming from one of its wealthiest families, was out of touch with the needs of most residents. “There are no blue bloods” where he grew up in Brooklyn, Mr. Florio said time and again.

Ms. Whitman hammered away at the Florio tax increases, pledged to cut income taxes by 30 percent over three years and accused the incumbent of waging a campaign based on class warfare.

In the end, she narrowly won, with 49 percent of the vote to his 48 percent, while more than a dozen independent candidates shared the rest.

It was not Mr. Florio’s last hurrah. In 2000 he ran for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat being vacated by a fellow Democrat, Frank R. Lautenberg.

Mr. Florio faced a Wall Street multimillionaire and novice politician, Jon S. Corzine, who maintained that Mr. Florio, with his sharp tax increases as the economy sank into a recession in 1990, “took a problem and made it a crisis.” Mr. Florio questioned his opponent’s qualifications for the office and accused him of sounding like a Republican.

Mr. Corzine, who outspent Mr. Florio by 14 to 1 — $35 million to $2.5 million — won easily, and then won the general election. Mr. Corzine left the Senate in 2006 after being elected governor and served one term, defeated for re-election in 2009 by the Republican Chris Christie, a prosecutor at the time.

After losing his bid for a second term as governor, Mr. Florio returned to private law practice. But he remained active in environmental matters. From 2002 to 2005 he served as chairman of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, which works to preserve the state’s Pine Barrens, the 1.1 million acres of semi-wilderness spanning parts of seven counties. While in Congress, Mr. Florio had pressed for federal support of such efforts.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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