REFORM OR POLITICS AS USUAL FOR DEMOCRATIC LEGISLATORS?

by David P. Rebovich It was not long ago that Republicans were calling then-candidate Jon Corzine the biggest boss of an already boss-dominated Democratic Party. At the same time Democrats in the legislature, in the party hierarchy, and in the ranks were heralding the businessman-turned U.S. Senator as just what they needed – a level-headed outsider with the right values and the financial expertise to restore credibility after Jim McGreevey and put the state’s fiscal house in order. Then there were the commentators, including this one, who saw Corzine as capable of bringing strategic vision, a business-like approach, and a suffer-no-fools attitude to state government, all of which it needed. Take the formal and informal powers of one of the nation’s strongest governorships. Add a seemingly contrite and grateful Democratic Party. Then put into the governor’s office a proud, non-nonsense man who because of his vast personal wealth could pay for his own campaign and be answerable only to the people who voted for him. After a less than inspiring campaign, the new governor stated that he is committed to doing what is necessary to restore citizens’ confidence in their state government and to put that government on firm financial footing. He admitted that there will be political and financial costs involved and claimed he did not care if he is a one-term governor as long as he achieves his goals. That’s an appealing story-line, and Jon Corzine has tried to stick to it. Now, however, some Democrats in the legislature, including some of the very folks who all but idolized Corzine during the campaign, seem intent on following their own script. When in his Inaugural Address the new governor called for the need to restore ethical integrity to politics in New Jersey, some key Democrats were offended by his tone and suggestion that there was something wrong with the way officeholders conduct themselves. When he announced that the state was out of budget gimmicks and a sales tax increase was needed to help put it on the path to fiscal integrity, other fellow Democrats said there simply has to be another way. Another way to preserve “politics as usual,” that is. For Corzine, the state cannot afford “politics as usual” any longer, either politically or financially. While he realizes that New Jerseyans are not keen about paying higher taxes or accepting lower levels of state aid and program support, he believes that people will accept sacrifice if state officials demonstrate a genuine commitment to reform. Corzine thinks that such practices as pay-to-play, patronage hiring, dual office-holding, pension-padding, and pork-barrel spending must be eradicated in order to restore citizens’ confidence in their government officials and to save taxpayer dollars. Thus, for this governor ethical integrity and fiscal integrity are related in political and policy terms. Lawmakers at all levels of government need to clean up the political process in order to gain credibility with citizens. Credibility is necessary if those same citizens are to take their public officials seriously when they talk about the need for making changes in public policy, including such sacrifices as revenue increases and spending freezes and cuts. Those sacrifices, as we all learned from Corzine’s Budget Address, are significant. Besides the sales tax hike the Governor is calling for an increase in the cigarette tax, a new water tax, freezes in state aid to municipalities and school districts, cuts in several programs, a big cut in aid to higher education, and only a small increase in property tax rebate checks. Corzine wasn’t kidding when he said he would ask for “shared sacrifice.” But the benefits of the new budget, in his mind, outweigh the costs. For the first time in years, state spending would come close to matching recurring revenues. And with anticipated economic growth, stimulated in part by state supported investment programs, New Jersey’s fiscal situation will presumably improve so that in future years funding can be restored, some tax hikes rescinded, and new programs pursued. This sounds like a reasonable plan, especially after years of recurring deficits, budget gimmicks and uncertain funding for several programs. But some of Corzine’s fellow Democrats apparently don’t agree. They are concerned about the impact of tax hikes, aid freezes, and program cuts on their reelection prospects in 2007 when every seat in the legislature will be on the ballot. Their biggest complaint is with the sales tax increase, which is expected to cost the average family about $275 a year. Combined with other tax hikes and freezes in state aid to towns and schools that will undoubtedly drive up property taxes, the Governor’s budget proposal may well cost many households twice that much and a lot more if a family has children attending state colleges. There’s no denying that this could be a potent issue in next year’s legislative campaigns. But what are the alternatives? Well, one suggestion is to reevaluate the amount of money the Governor wants to put into the government workers pension fund. A more robust stock market may have increased the value of the pension fund such that the state can justify a smaller contribution than the $1.5 billion Corzine has recommended for next year. Any money freed up can presumably be used for program support or to avoid some tax hikes. Some legislators are also holding out for an improved revenue picture for the 2007 fiscal year, although recent tax returns have not given state officials any reason to be optimistic. That leaves returning to Corzine’s script as the likely, if painful, option. Yes, some editing of that script can be done, but this will also involve some more difficult choices. The Governor himself wants to consider whether the Abbott school funding formula is fair. Republican legislators, to their credit, have argued that consolidation of school districts and municipalities, along with the further regionalization of services, must be put on the table as a possible means of saving taxpayer dollars. Discussing these measures seem to be necessary before the state considers major property tax reform, another Corzine goal. After all, why would anyone want to pay higher income taxes – the likely alternative – to provide property tax relief to folks living in smaller communities or school districts that do not pursue economies of scale. Or, for that matter in towns or school districts that have not enacted pay-to-play reform, reigned in patronage hiring, and cut down on administrative expenses. Which brings us back to the relationship between ethics reform and policy reform. Corzine may be new to Trenton and momentarily taken aback by how his fellow Democrats in the legislature have dissed him. But the new Governor understands the big picture and the bottom line. And he also understands that running new year on a platform of “politics and budgeting as usual” is no guarantee of victory at the polls for members of his or any other party.. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS magazine, and is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that offers weekly commentary on national political developments.

REFORM OR POLITICS AS USUAL FOR DEMOCRATIC LEGISLATORS?