KATRINA AND CANDOR IN NEW JERSEY POLITICS

Friday morning the state’s most popular radio station, New Jersey 101.5 FM, reported that its own insightful, intrepid State House correspondent, Kevin McArdle, was headed to Louisiana. A veteran of many late night budget wars and countless battles over other state policy issues, McArdle would face what might be his most challenging assignment. He would fly from Ft. McGuire with thirty-five specially trained security forces and thousands of gallons of water to the storm, disease, and crime-ravaged New Orleans area. It was heartening to hear that the folks in that region were finally receiving relief and that some of it was coming from the Garden State. But despite the seriousness of the moment, this life-long New Jerseyan couldn’t help but think the following – when the Big Easy is ready to be rebuilt, please don’t send the folks from our School Construction Corporation to help. The already astronomical cost of the undertaking would probably double! A cynical and even silly thought, to be sure. But no more so than some of what’s been going on in the governor’s race here in New Jersey while other states and the national government grapple with a genuine catastrophe. Of course campaigns usually do contain excesses, both positive and negative. Citizens who have big needs and high hopes want to hear the candidates talk about how they will satisfy those needs and help people realize their hopes. Other folks who have complaints about those in power want candidates to recognize those complaints, attribute blame, and offer changes. But no matter what their needs, hopes and complaints, many citizens do get turned off when politicians make promises that contradict common sense and attacks that offend common decency. In the aftermath of a sobering catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, it’s likely that folks will be less tolerant of even the usual campaign rhetoric. However, while the nation was transfixed on events in the Gulf region and the challenges government officials face in helping victims, the story line and the strategies in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race remained the same. Despite his camp’s attempt to spin the story differently, Doug Forrester did not receive the exoneration from the Department of Banking and Insurance that he wanted regarding his campaign donations. Now the Corzine people are asking that the Attorney General to investigate if Forrester broke the law that prevents insurance company owners from donating to political campaigns. In the meantime, two attorneys – Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer, filed a formal complaint against Corzine with the U.S. Senate’s ethics committee. They claim that Corzine violated disclosure rules when he did not report that he loaned Carla Katz $470,000 for her mortgage. Afran, who ran against Corzine as the Green Party’s Senate candidate in 2000, and Mayer believe that this loan represents a conflict of interest that Corzine was required to report. New Jerseyans certainly expected ethics to be a big issue in this year’s campaign. But they assumed the discussion would be about government ethics generally and the need to clean up politics in Trenton and throughout the state. They did not think that the ethics of the two gubernatorial candidates would be questioned. Now both Forrester and Corzine face serious complaints that may or may not be decided in their favor. Whatever happens, however, the claims that both candidates make about bringing business acumen, management skills, and a new attitude to Trenton will be diminished by their own problems that could have been avoided Watch for one or both campaigns to run ads that question the opponent’s ability to manage a $30 billion state budget when he can’t seem to get a handle on his own personal financial affairs. Also be on the lookout for charges and countercharges on how the gubernatorial candidates will react to higher gasoline prices. Forrester, who has struggled to find a topic other than his own legal problems to talk about, has attacked Corzine for refusing to make an iron-clad promise not to increase the state motor fuels tax. The Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) will soon have to use all its revenue gained from the existing gas tax for debt service. Unless new revenues are found, the state cannot repair or expand its transportation network or help counties and municipalities to do the same. Corzine has waffled on how he would find new money for the TTF and recently has said that increasing the gas tax would be a last resort. He is apparently willing to consider leasing or selling state assets, including the toll roads, to bring in billions of dollars of new revenue. Whether this is a good idea remains to be seen. But at least Corzine is thinking – and thinking creatively – about how to garner new revenue that the state will surely need to fund a variety of pressing needs. Those needs? Besides dealing with the TTF, the state needs to adequately adequately fund the pension systems of government employees and find more money for the school construction fund. And don’t forget the most important and expensive issue on voters’ minds – their desire for significant property tax relief. Corzine has said that he will address these issues and more, including making college tuition, health insurance and housing more affordable and “growing the economy” to produce more good paying jobs for blue collar and white collar workers. This is an appealing agenda, but is it realistic? Corzine is telling New Jerseyans that he will achieve these goals through a combination of better management of state resources, regulatory changes, economic incentives, and targeted public spending and investment. Still, all of this will require increases in state spending as well as time. While Corzine likes to say that state economic growth will provide the revenues for him to pursue his many desirable goals, the kind of economic growth he is talking about takes many years and a lot of up-front money. Only so much money can be squeezed from the current state budget for other uses, including property tax relief. Additional revenues will have to come from somewhere. New Jersey voters, especially those who find Corzine’s agenda appealing, would be wise to demand that he detail his priorities, his plans for raising revenue, and his time frame for achieving various goals. If in these discussions Corzine does admit that, yes, there will have to some sort of tax hikes to move the state forward and provide property tax relief, Forrester will jump all over him. That’s understandable from the standpoint of campaign strategy and Forrester’s own ideology and policy perspective. The Republican will no doubt reiterate his basic campaign pledge to reduce property taxes by 30 percent by identifying waste, fraud and abuse in government. There are citizens who are wary of Corzine’s long list of promises and his ability to achieve them – after all, government had a hard time delivering water to people literally dying of thirst – and attracted to Forrester’s simple promise. But these folks should ask themselves and Forrester if his promise is too simplistic. Can enough savings be found in the current budget? And, what about funds for transportation, school construction, government worker pensions and other desirable goals? How will these be obtained? New Jersey may not have a Katrina to contend with, but it does have pressing problems that need to be addressed candidly and responsibly. In between their attacks and promise-making, let’s hope that the gubernatorial candidates recognize the need for such candor and for making responsible policy proposals. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute of New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute), He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.

KATRINA AND CANDOR IN NEW JERSEY POLITICS