Plan to Save New Jersey

The election is over, the campaign ads have disappeared, and life has returned to what passes for normal in the Garden State. What happens now for a state that’s facing a number of potentially crippling issues?

Where do we go from here?

The election is over, the campaign ads have disappeared, and life has returned to what passes for normal in the Garden State. What happens now for a state that’s facing a number of potentially crippling issues? The discussion includes John Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective; David P. Rebovich, managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics; and Jeff Pillets, Statehouse reporter for the Record of Hackensack.

What will the new governor face as the smoke clears?

DR Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester have been campaigning on the promise that they will change the way politics is conducted in New Jersey. Candidates have long promised to bring “the best and the brightest” to Trenton, to put the public interest ahead of partisan considerations, and to enact bold new and effective policies while pursuing efficiency; citizens are still skeptical, after Corzine and Forrester spend record-setting amounts claiming that this time they meant it. In the meantime, loyal partisans wedded to old ways wonder what their roles will be in the next administration. Let’s hope the new governor remembers who really put him in the Statehouse.

JS  Shake hands with reality and get to know truth on a first-name basis. The campaign was about a lot of things, except about facing up to big problems. The new governor must quickly get a handle on the state’s finances and lay out just how bad things really are. He needs to offer long-term solutions, however painful. And he’d better not use the Washington playbook—the one that asks those doing the best to sacrifice least. It would be great if the out-of-power party felt compelled to be part of this process instead of scoring political points. What’s ahead is too tough for that.

JP  Denial, double-talk, and broken promises. [The governor] can expect a honeymoon measured in days rather than months, as he collides into the brick wall that is Trenton’s self-serving elite. Meaningful ethics and pay-to-play reform, outside of a few symbolic executive orders, will remain a mirage. Powerful Democrats who rule the Legislature will continue to oppose a property tax convention that has real teeth. And does anyone really believe that the state public employee unions—those financiers of the incumbency—will allow significant cuts to the state payroll or services?

Even with Solomon’s smarts and Hercules’s muscles, the new governor would be unlikely to break that logjam. The chief executive’s only recourse, barring a great awakening of the electorate, may just be more muddling.

Any way to motivate voters next time?

JS  To beat up on citizens for voter apathy is to blame the victims. On many issues, the people are ahead of the politicians. They are waiting for real explanations and honest choices. The first person to reject recent campaign strategies and go positive will very likely find a receptive audience and higher voter turnout. People need a reason to vote, and the unfortunate byproduct of recent campaigns is that candidates spend millions of dollars on shrilly negative ads that end up giving people a reason not to vote.

JP  As Jon Corzine might attest, voters can be swayed to do almost anything with millions of dollars worth of negative ads. As Jim Florio would certainly attest, a big, sloppy tax hike also has a way of commanding public attention. But with all due apologies to the League of Women Voters, there is no reliable way to engage New Jersey’s materially sated populace by appealing to civic conscience. Maybe what we need is a law that orders people to compare their outlandish property tax bills to those in, say, Pennsylvania. Or perhaps we can run a “Movie of the Week” about lawmakers’ juicy pensions. People might actually vote out an incumbent or two.

DR  Good political candidates have a vision, have specific proposals to realize that vision, and can explain to voters how their election will improve conditions in the state and improve the lives of average citizens. This fall, New Jerseyans were offered big and tired promises and attacks on the opposition, but were spared the details of how our new governor would actually enact change. Perhaps surprisingly, polls showed that New Jerseyans wanted to hear the details, especially how the candidates would actually pay for property tax relief. Future candidates should take heed. Having more debates might seem like a conventional, academic recommendation, but in a society fascinated by shows like American Idol, perhaps people do want to watch more competitions between politicians.


Most pressing need for the state?

DR  Property tax relief? Ethics reform? Taking care of the truly needy? Preserving open space? Transportation funding? School construction? These are all pressing needs. But for progress to occur in New Jersey, state government must demonstrate a commitment to efficiency. The state needs more in some policy areas—affordable health coverage, housing, open space—but it needs better in most. Citizens, too, need to admit that to achieve property tax relief, to balance the books, and to have discretionary budget funds to pursue noble policy goals, there must be more money. Property tax relief and an activist government will require other revenue sources. The middle class should be prepared to provide a good portion of that revenue, because it benefits from so many government services.

JP  New Jersey’s economy and standard of living continue to be the envy of most other states, but many of our top students, researchers and entrepreneurs are finding more fertile ground for innovation beyond state lines. Jim McGreevey’s efforts to unify New Jersey’s balkanized and underachieving university system fell prey to the egos of entrenched academics and local politicos. If we can’t find a way past the pettiness, our grand plans to become the nation’s biotech breadbasket will be the next victim of the brain drain.

JS  So many of the state’s pressing problems stem from over-reliance on property taxes and dividing the state into tiny jurisdictions for the purpose of providing services and educating children. We need to turn more to broad-based state taxes as the way to fairly and adequately raise the money that’s needed. The current system clobbers middle-income people and creates two New Jerseys—one well-off and isolated, the other struggling.


Biggest issue in ’06?

JP  Taxes. The new governor will face a $4 billion budget deficit. The $25 billion past-due bill on the state employee pension system must be paid. The bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund needs an $8 billion cash infusion. Property owners will expect hefty tax-rebate checks come summer. Where is all the money going to come from? Thanks to the state Supreme Court, lawmakers will no longer be able to pull a last-minute bond deal out of their hat to meet expenses. And even if we eliminate all waste, fraud, and abuse, the savings likely won’t be enough to stave off the coming crisis. Look for the inevitable debate on higher gas and sales taxes to begin in earnest sometime [in January].

DR  The biggest single issue will be property tax relief. If the new governor and Legislature make any progress on it, it will bring credibility for his commitment to responding to the public. Of course, the state has to find money for the Transportation Trust Fund, for state-worker pensions, and for the School Construction Corporation. And what happened to the structural deficit we’ve heard about for years. Did that just disappear or will the state still be a few billion dollars short of balancing the new budget? The new governor’s “honeymoon” is likely to be short as he struggles to keep the state’s fiscal house in order.

JS  Changing New Jersey from a debtor state to an investor state. We must end the practices that began in the 1990s, of spending money that wasn’t there, borrowing huge sums to hand out to businesses as a lure, and putting off hard choices like raising the gasoline tax. Any number of ticking time bombs are set to go off in 2006, and it’s unlikely that a surging economy will cover up for shoddy management and gratuitous tax cuts. It’s time to go back to the old-fashioned way of building an economy: investing in transportation infrastructure, schools, environmental protection, and the other things that allow New Jersey to take advantage of its location and other strengths.

Article from December, 2005 Issue.

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