Time To Go After Those Sacred Cows

Our new governor has to make some hard and painful choices.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Our new governor was elected as a fiscal conservative. We are about to find out what that means.
Chris Christie is inheriting a budget mess beyond comprehension. We haven’t funded our pension commitments in a responsible way. We keep telling people they can have more services without raising taxes to the degree necessary to pay for those services. We let tiny municipalities have their own police chiefs, fire chiefs, and school superintendents.

I’m convinced that Christie is tough enough to face the state’s problems, but it won’t be easy. According to Professor Carl Van Horn, who is the founding director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers—one of the nation’s leading academic centers on workforce policy and practice, “The problem that our governor-elect faces is, how do you unwind New Jersey’s overspending habits without killing or harming the state? If we tax our way out of the problems, it will hurt the economy. If we cut our way out, we risk cutting things that we need, like good education.”

Van Horn likens Jersey’s issues to the situation in California, which he calls “an extreme case of bad fiscal management.” Of course, the Golden State’s $20.7 billion shortfall is far worse than the Garden State’s estimated $8 billion budget gap. Still, we can learn from California, which let its balance sheet get so far out of whack that “they have to raise tuition at state universities by 32 percent in the course of one year,” says Van Horn. “That is the price you pay for not dealing responsibly.”

So what’s a new governor to do? “Christie has to hold the line with the Legislature,” says Van Horn. “In the first couple years he is going to have to do things to balance the budget that some people may call gimmicks such as delaying or reducing pension payments. The governor-elect has to educate the public and then go after some things that are sacred cows to some people and not give in.”

Going after sacred cows seems simple. Most of us want to see the state provide more money for the arts or, dare I say, for public television, which I have been a part of for two decades. But if the choice is between sufficiently funding these important initiatives and providing more state dollars for necessary health care for poor urban kids, the answer should be a no brainer.

Bottom line: We need to start living within our means immediately. We have to accept that hard, painful choices—which include pulling back on some of those sacred cows—are essential to the smaller government and fiscal conservatism that so many people say they support.

Chris Christie has no choice. The Democratic-controlled Legislature has no choice. And we, as citizens, have no choice but to accept the fact that we’ve been living high on the hog. We haven’t been paying our bills as we go.

It’s a new year, we have a new governor, and it is a very new day in New Jersey. I’d like to say it is sunny, but it is cloudy and drizzling at best. Yet, if we come together now and do the right thing, we have a chance—with a very narrow window—to turn around this ship of state.

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