CORZINE’S ACTIVIST GOVERNMENT MUST FIGHT CORRUPTION

When then-U.S. Senator Jon Corzine let it be known that he was interested in running for Governor, members of the State House press corp had a simple question. Why? As in, why trade a likely lifetime membership in the most exclusive club in the world for the opportunity to inherit a multitude of problems – financial, policy, political and ethical – left by Jim McGreevey and his predecessors. Those close to Corzine hinted that he had higher aspirationsand reminded folks that often “the path to the White House runs through the State House.”

There may be some truth to that adage. But inNew Jersey these days, if there is a pathrunning through the State House,it looks like it leads tothe Big House, at least for some legislators in the Governor’s party! To have any chance of being considered for a spot on his party’s national ticket in the future, Corzine would have to demonstrate to national leaders that heachieved considerable success as New Jersey’s chief executive. While success is defined differently at different times and in different states, it is quite clear thatwhat the governor of the Garden State needs to do to be taken seriouslynationally isto clean up the mess in New Jersey, even if that means taking on his party’s establishment here.

Jon Corzine knows this and in fact announcedas muchwith great fanfare in his Inaugural Address. Remember how the new Governor declared that New Jersey, even after four years of Democratic rule (yes, for two of the those years the Senate was split, 20-20), was still suffering from three major crises? One involved state finances, specifically theperennial problem oftrying tobalance theannual budget andthe long-term one of meeting our financial obligations to the public workers pension fund. Another crisis was the state’s reliance on regressive property taxes which continued to skyrocket. And, the third crisis?That onedealt with ethical integrity or rather the need for it in government and politics. The ethical environment in politics and government could be significantly improved,according to the new Governor, by enacting comprehensive campaign finance reform – specifically ending pay to play at all levels of government and wheeling – and dual office-holding for all public officials.

Corzine also understood that addressing these issueswas necessary before he could pursue another set of important policy goals dealing with the quality of life. Some he categorized under an “affordability agenda” – keeping college tuition low and increasing financial aid; providing 100,000 units of low and moderate income housing; and, making available low-cost health insurance for those one million residents who lack coverage. Toss in saving more open space, repairing roads and bridges, expanding the higher education system,providing more state aid to growing suburban schools districts, and enticing business growth with targeted investments, tax incentives,public-private partnerships and government funded job training programs,andthe new Governorcarved out an enormously ambitious agenda.

The kind of agenda that would satisfy most ofhis constituents, capture the attention of the national media and party leaders, and vindicate one’s personal philosophy and a central tenet of the Democratic Party. That is, an activist government properly run by a principled, creative, and adaptable leader can solve pressing social problems and encourage economic growth, and do so without over-taxing people and businesses.

Now this is not to say that Corzine did not believe that sacrificeswould be necessary. He admitted that they would be.He even tried to getstate workers to give back benefits Rather than recommending increases in income tax rates to gain funds for property tax relief, the Governor supported cuts in state, local and school spending through efficiency measures andconsolidation and regionalization of small towns and school districts. To achieve long-term fiscal stability in state government, efficiencies and cuts will have to be made and new revenues found. If tax hikes are not an option, alternative funding mechanisms must be found. We now know thatCorzine’s favorite isthe “monetization” of tolls roads which would likely result in big hikes in tolls.

What about ethics reform?Well, what might seem like routine calls for good government have taken on a sense of urgency here. U.S. Attorney Chris Christie recently arrested eleven more public officials, these for allegedly accepting bribes and participatory in extortion. These arrests are on top of the 108 successful prosecutions of corrupt public officials by Christie’s office in the last six years. Two of the people recently arrested are assemblyman – Alfred Steele and Mims Hackett – who have sensibly resigned their posts.. And, of course, two sitting state senators – Wayne Bryant and Sharpe James – have also been indicted by Christie but are completing their terms. Now Senator Joe Coniglio, who is a target of another Christie investigation, announced that he will not seek reelection.

The responses by the political establishment to these developments? Well, Republicans legislators aredemanding thatthe Governor immediately call a special session of the legislature on ethics, with the intend to support the comprehensive reforms that Corzine himself has proposed. Many Democratic legislators immediately called for Hackett’s and Steele’s resignations. But when asked ifthe fact that four and possibly five state legislatorswill be indicted this year means thatmore reforms are necessary now, Democratic leaders have had a different response. They have talked about “a few bad apples” andlapses in personal character as causes of corruption and denied that corruption isa systemic problem in politics in the Garden State.

The Governor has said that while he still supports comprehensive campaign finance and ethics reform, a campaign season is not a “healthy environment” for a nonpartisan debate to occur.Senate President Richard Codey and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts also prefer to wait until the new legislature is installed to deal with the issue. They believe that sinceso many lawmakers arenot seeking reelection, they may not adequately represent public opinion, or the interests of futurelegislators,if a special session were held during lame duck.

These are not unreasonable points if, that is, Democratic as well as Republican candidates do discuss ethics reform in detail on the campaign trail over the next eight weeks. Yes, Republicans are trying to take advantage of the issue and use it against the party in power. Who wouldn’t? But Democrats, especially the Governor, would be wise to not simply dismiss GOP calls for ethics reform as mischief making. If Democrats do not come out strong for ethics reforms of the sort that Corzine is calling for and if the Governor cannot persuadelegislators in his party to support such reform,don’t be surprise if there is political paralysis in the State House next spring.

While the Democrats are likely to retain their majorities in both chambers of the legislature, neither the legislature nor the Governor have any political capital to squander.The credibility of the state’sDemocratic lawmakers has been hurt but their failure toachieve significant progress onmajor policy issues.Refusal totake aggressive action against corruption will reduce credibility even more. Without credibility, the Governor will not be able to convince already skeptical New Jerseyans toaccept a controversial asset monetization plan that will entail toll hikes. Without an improvement in the state’s fiscal condition, Corzine will notbe able to pursue his ambitious affordability agenda. Like his fellow Democrats in the legislature, he may be able to hold on to power but for what purpose? Toprotect politics as usual?That’s not a good reason for leaving the U.S. Senate, for spendingmillions of one’s own moneyon a gubernatorial campaign, or for asking New Jerseyans toreelect you to a second term as governor in 2009.

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 LAWYERand is on the editorial advisory board of CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.