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New Jersey officials mum on amount of Sandy damages

By Hilary Russ

(Reuters) - New Jersey is still not releasing estimates of how much economic damage Superstorm Sandy caused as it wants to take its time to get the most accurate numbers possible, the state's top budget official said on Tuesday.

The estimates - particularly about how much tax revenue the state could lose in the near future because of the storm - are likely to affect the state budget and Republican Governor Chris Christie's hopes for a tax cut.

"We're being extraordinarily careful not to overstate or misrepresent the numbers," New Jersey Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said on Tuesday at an economic forum in Trenton, the state capital.

In contrast, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that he plans to ask the federal government for $30 billion in disaster aid to help with the recovery for New York City, Long Island and other devastated areas of the state.

And New York City Comptroller John Liu said within days of the storm that the city was permanently losing $200 million a day in economic activity, with that amount likely to top out at about $1 billion.

Sidamon-Eristoff said his office expects to provide information about New Jersey's economic costs of the storm to Christie sometime this week. He said that Cuomo "made a big splash with his numbers."

"The prize doesn't go to the state that is the earliest out with a big number," he said later. "Ultimately, what matters is that when we do publish a number or series of numbers, that it reflect the very best analysis that we have. I'll take being careful over being quick any day of the week."

The storm could cost the region as much as $50 billion in damages and lost economic activity altogether, according to some estimates. It knocked out power, transportation and gas distribution systems, brining some business to a halt temporarily and causing housing emergencies for flood victims.

Areas hit hard by the storm are losing sales taxes and other revenues. Affected cities, towns and states also have to repair housing, businesses and critical infrastructure systems like transportation.

"We should snap back from those and, as many will soon notice, the rebuilding activity will become evident," Charles Steindel, the chief economist in the New Jersey Treasury, said at Tuesday's forum.

The federal government and insurers are also expected to pay for many recovery costs.

New Jersey has the seventh-largest state economy in the United States and the third-highest median household income, at $67,458, according to Joseph Seneca, a Rutgers University economist.

Yet New Jersey's economy has been struggling to regain ground since the recession. Its unemployment rate was 9.8 percent in September, the fourth highest in the nation.

The state has been recovering private-sector jobs. But even if it adds 25,000 jobs a year, it would take until almost 2020 to get back to its pre-recession peak of 163,300 in January 2008, Seneca said.

In February, the governor proposed a 10 percent across-the-board income-tax cut. The Democrat-led Legislature cut a deal with Christie for a plan to provide property-tax credits on residents' income tax returns for those earning less than $400,000 a year.

But state lawmakers, concerned about lagging revenues, didn't include the proposed cuts in the $31.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2013, which the governor signed in July.

For months since then, Christie has continued advocating a tax cut - until Monday, when he said he would wait to see what Sandy's impact on revenue was before deciding whether to pursue the proposal further. He said he still supports the idea, according to several media outlets.

(Editing by Andrew Hay and Jan Paschal)

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