THE OTHER BIG, RARELY DISCUSSED ISSUES IN THE CAMPAIGN

Election Day is only four weeks away, and there are a few matters that deserve more attention than they have received. One is that despite the millions of dollars the two gubernatorial candidates are spending weekly on television and radio ads to preach their own virtues, sell their policy positions and attack their opponent, voters here just don’t seem that enthusiastic about either Jon Corzine or Doug Forrester. The other is that behind all the talk about providing property tax relief and lots of other good stuff for citizens, there is the simple fact that the next governor will have to confront some major fiscal challenges. These challenges may prevent, and will certainly impede, a Governor Corzine or a Governor Forrester from achieving their ambitious policy goals anytime soon. These two matters are related. Citizens may not know a lot about either gubernatorial candidate, despite all their ads and appearances on the stump. But they do know that New Jersey still has some pressing budget problems that cannot be erased or wished away by some well-produced commercials or snappy speeches. And a good number of people remember how previous governors like Tom Kean, Jim Florio and Jim McGreevey campaigned on big promises and then had to raise taxes or cut spending once in office. Thus, it shouldn’t be a surprise if New Jerseyans aren’t totally buying the current gubernatorial candidates’ claims that they will reform and transform the Garden State. What is the evidence that citizens aren’t particularly excited about Corzine and Forrester? The polls show a normal number of undecided folks at this stage of a campaign, about 15 to 20 percent of likely voters. And the amount of people who say they are not likely to change their minds about whom they will vote for is also as expected. But ask your friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers about the candidates, which one they will support, and what they really think about that person? Don’t be surprised if the partisan types tell you that they are simply voting the party line and if unaffiliated folks offer the old “lesser of two evils” logic to explain how they will vote. Oh yes, there are those who will admit that they are for Corzine because Forrester is too close to a too conservative President George W. Bush. Or they are for Forrester because Corzine is part of the Democratic gang that has embarrassed the state and put it in dire financial straits. To the politically attentive, these may seem like superficial reasons for voting for a gubernatorial candidate. But of course both Corzine and Forrester have made these superficial reasons central themes of their own campaigns and their extensive advertising. Hey, campaigns are about winning, so it’s hard to begrudge candidates for doing what they think will help them gain a majority. That being said, it does look like New Jersey’s next governor will be elected by a coalition of ideologues, party regulars and independents whose motivation is keeping the other candidate out of office. Don’t get me wrong. That’s a rather typical election coalition. The problem, however, is that it may not be much of a governing coalition if it is held together by the following promises. “I will provide property tax relief and ethics reform and I’m not Bush/McGreevey.” In fairness, both Corzine and Forrester are talking about more than property tax relief, ethics reform, and the problems of their opponent. Both candidates have plans on important issues like economic growth, K-12 and higher education, homeland security, health care, and the environment, and they have been talking quite a bit about these plans on the stump recently. Corzine and Forrester are apparently trying to demonstrate that they are competent to be governor and are hoping to appeal to undecided voters who may be concerned about one or more of these issues. Things get complicated, however, when you ask how each would-be governor will pay for his proposals, including providing property tax relief. Since the very beginning of the GOP gubernatorial primary, Forrester has claimed that ridding state government of “waste, fraud and abuse” will enable him to cut property taxes by 30 percent in three years. Corzine’s rebate plan is less ambitious and expensive. But he too is committed to finding savings in budgets at all levels of government. In addition, he apparently has not ruled out, at least philosophically, tax hikes on the wealthy if needed. Both candidates are also relying on economic growth in New Jersey, which will presumably be stimulated by their policies, to generate more revenues to help pay for their policy proposals. But will there be enough revenue generated by economic growth to enable the state and its next governor to deal with some major fiscal challenges that cannot be ignored. These are identifying a new and hopefully permanent funding source for the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), insuring the solvency of the government workers’ pension system, and finding more money for the soon to be depleted School Construction corporation. Ideas being bandied about include raising the state gas tax, leasing toll roads, borrowing more money, and finding even more wasteful spending to free up funds for the above needs. Bet you haven’t seen or heard any ads by the candidates on these issues. That’s too bad. The next governor will not be able to hide from them and is likely to find his own policy agenda put on hold while he looks for funding mechanisms and negotiates with the legislature about how to proceed. Some editorialists are now writing that it is essential for the candidates to explain what they plan to do about the TTF, pensions, and school construction funding. Ingrid Reed of Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute recommends the candidates be asked about these issues in upcoming debates and joint appearances. Let me add that they not be allowed off the hook until they provide specific answers. 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.

THE OTHER BIG, RARELY DISCUSSED ISSUES IN THE CAMPAIGN