QUESTIONS, NOT PRESENTS, UNDER THE STATE’S CHRISTMAS TREE

by David P. Rebovich New Jerseyans hoping to find some presents under their Christmas tree courtesy of the state’s often accommodating politicians will be disappointed this year. Iffy revenues, mandated spending on big ticket items, and a taxophobic public mean that there is not much money available for existing programs, much less new ones. And with a new, bottom-line oriented governor about to be inaugurated, New Jersey’s public officials may not be able to give their supporters and constituents many gifts for the foreseeable future. But the state’s politicians did leave something under the tree this year that will occupy the attention of citizens here long after the holiday season. They left several intriguing questions about New Jersey’s political future. Such as, what role will the Democratic leaders in the new legislature play? Will the new governor refocus and reform his own Democratic Party as he wrestles with the state’s serious budget challenges? Will the state’s Republican Party regroup and position itself to rebound? Will any progress be made on property tax reform, and will other taxes be hiked? Will any Democratic congressmen end up challenging Bob Menendez in the Senate primary? And, will Tom Kean, Jr. be able to rally his party and make a strong run in the general election campaign for Senate? While most eyes will understandably be on the new Corzine Administration next year, it would be a mistake to overlook the Democratic leaders in the state legislature. After all, they will have a lot to say about whether the governor’s agenda moves forward. Joe Roberts will be the new Speaker of the General Assembly, a step up from the Majority Leader’s post he held the last four years. Smart and savvy, Roberts knows how to broker a deal. But in 2006 we will see if he’s willing to defer to an inexperienced, reform-minded new governor. Or, will Robert’s see himself as an advocate for his fellow assemblymen and their district’s interests, regardless of Corzine’s policy agenda? And, will he also push hard to help his native South Jersey, a region often overlooked by legislators from the more populous north and central parts of the state? What about Richard Codey? The Acting Governor will remain Senate President and has pledged to work hand in hand with Corzine. Some observers have wondered if he will harbor any ill-will toward the new governor who, after all, pushed aside the more popular Codey and prevented him from running for a full-term. It is unlikely that the Senate President will try to spite Corzine. However, the thirty-one year veteran of the legislature has incomparable political experience, an impressive knowledge of public policy, and a mind of his own. As Senate President, Codey did not lie down for Governor Jim McGreevey. Despite his commitment to helping Corzine, Codey will surely expect that his ideas, as well as the interests of his fellow Democrats in the Senate, will be taken seriously by the new governor. In the meantime, Corzine himself seems to have little choice but to try get a strong grip on state government and his own party when he assumes office. The need to close a projected $5 billion budget deficit and find money for the Transportation Trust Fund, school construction, and government worker pensions may well force Corzine to defer, or plain forget about, rewarding some constituent groups who helped elect him. In fact, he may have to ask state and municipal workers and teachers to accept some sacrifices down the road. Will these and other Democratic constituent groups, as well as Democrats in the legislature, buy into the new governor’s plans to concentrate on “growing the economy” to gain the revenue he needs to pursue other desirable programs. What few legislators and New Jerseyans will not want to defer is property tax relief and reform. Indeed, Corzine has already announced that despite the state’s budget woes, he will fight to increase rebate checks as he promised during the campaign. He also wants to move quickly on property tax reform. Of course any such reform will require a new revenue source, likely to be an increase in income tax rates for some, perhaps many, residents. The question is, will the new governor and other property tax reform advocates explain this to the electorate? And, will these advocates also insist that spending currently paid for by property taxes also be reviewed and reformed to save the taxpayers some money. Ironically, the property tax reform movement may help New Jersey’s Republican Party unite and revive itself. Not that many Republicans support raising marginal income tax rates to replace some property tax revenues. But because GOP legislators and local officials may use the call for property tax reform as an opportunity to discuss high levels of state aid to distressed school districts and the fact that most middle-income, suburban districts spend far less per student than their poorer counterparts. Republicans can challenge the logic of such a practice, asking why it is acceptable for a district like Hamilton Township in Mercer County to spend about $9,000 per pupil while neighboring Trenton spends thousands more. They can also argue that it is time to think about reforming the state’s constitution to define once and for all what exactly is meant by a “thorough and efficient system of education?’ Yes, anyone – Republican or not – who asks these questions runs the risk of being accused of racism, classism, and anti-urbanism. However, generating a calm, honest discussion of the issue of school spending and equity may make the state’s Republicans something more than just critics of the Democrats or sanctimonious proponents of social ideas that are not popular here. To rebound statewide, Republicans need to be regarded as thoughtful advocates of New Jersey’s suburbanites, as they were in the Kean and Whitman years, while demonstrating sincere commitment to helping the state’s truly needy. However, Republicans still have to find a middle ground on property tax reform. Perhaps they can support some income tax hikes as long as something is done to combat inefficient and ineffective practices in school districts that already are heavily funded by the state. In the meantime, GOP lawmakers will have to figure out where they stand on the looming gas tax increase. Nobody wants to pay more at the pump, especially if the state is forcing them to do so. But a party that wants to be known not just for a knee-jerk “no new taxes” point of view but for being fiscally responsible will have to come up with alternatives to a gas tax. That won’t be easy. What about the U.S. Senate race in 2006? Will soon to be Senator Bob Menendez be challenged in the Democratic primary, and will Tom Kean, Jr. be a strong challenger in the general election campaign? Besides the unwanted internecine warfare and campaign expenditure that a contested Democratic primary would entail, the best reason for an incumbent Democratic congressman not to challenge Menendez is that the incumbent would have to give up his House seat. And, that’s probably a seat for life and a seat that will become more powerful if the Democrats gain a majority in the House, something that may well happen within the next few election cycles. Tom Kean, Jr. brings several good qualities to the campaign. But it still looks like the 2006 campaign in New Jersey will focus on how to get President Bush and his fellow Republicans in Washington to change some of their foreign and domestic policies. How sending another Republican to the Senate will do that is a hard question to answer. So is the claim that electing a clean-cut Republican to the U.S. Senate is a way to clean up New Jersey politics. But expect Kean to run a vigorous race that will at the least prepare him for future runs for federal office or the governorship. 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 for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and now writes monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS MAGAZINE.

QUESTIONS, NOT PRESENTS, UNDER THE STATE’S CHRISTMAS TREE