GOVERNOR JON CORZINE, BETWEEN THE LINES

by David P. Rebovich The theme of Jon Corzine’s inauguration was “New Jersey’s New Beginnings.” That’s a standard and benign, if not especially inspiring, notion, and last Tuesday it evoked bittersweet feelings in Trenton’s War Memorial. That’s where lots of Democrats, a smattering of Republicans, and hundreds of members of the state’s political establishment gathered to welcome the new governor, see a popular acting one step aside, and wonder if the ghost of a former one could really be exorcised from New Jersey politics. Peering down from the balcony, it was hard not to wonder how many of those assembled really wanted a “new beginning.” After all, politics as usual has been good to lots of them. Many reporters and some veterans of the state’s political scene were rooting for the new governor. But there was considerable skepticism about what Corzine can actually accomplish and, frankly, how committed he would be to changing the system once he became part of it. Average citizens seemed to share these concerns. Remember, more stayed home than voted in November. And two months later an FDU-Public Mind Poll gave Corzine a paltry 43 percent approval rating, not a good score for a guy who hadn’t yet even entered office and made any big mistakes. Did Governor Corzine’s Inaugural Address give anyone a reason to think differently of him? Well, he did discuss issues that have been bandied about by candidates and state officials for years now – ethics reform, fiscal integrity, property tax relief and reform, economic growth, and homeland security. Few folks could disagree with Corzine’s claim that “these goals are neither partisan nor regional. They reflect the needs and aspirations of all New Jerseyans.” What they want to know is if the new Governor can actually do much to achieve these goals. While his message may have sounded like the same old stuff, this Governor claims that practical and political reasons require him to make good on it. In practical terms, state government must put its fiscal house in order. Borrowing for operating expenses is no longer permitted. New Jersey must find more revenue to pay for transportation projects, school construction, and government worker pensions, and to balance a budget in serious deficit. Citizens don’t want higher taxes. So for starters, revenue will have to be squeezed out of the existing budget through efficiency measures and by cutting unnecessary patronage jobs and ineffective government programs. Corzine recognizes that New Jerseyans expect a former CEO of Goldman Sachs who campaigned as a financial and management expert to apply his expertise to the problems confronting state government. The new Governor also understands that most folks will not accept new tax hikes unless he demonstrates two things. He must cut waste. And he and other public officials – elected, appointed, and career – must demonstrate a genuine commitment to ethical behavior and to serving the public good. Early in his Inaugural Address Corzine said, “There was a clear message heard last fall. We must change how our government does business, and we must remember, it is the people for whom we work…To do that we will need real reform. And my highest priority will be ethics reform…So I call on my fellow public servants to join in an historic effort to end the toxic mix of politics, money and political business – at every level of government.” If Corzine heard a clear message at the polls last November, his own message in his Inaugural Address was clear too, at least in general terms. For state government to improve the quality of life for New Jerseyans, it must be fiscally responsible. The latter requires lawmakers to be public spirited and ethical, make quality decisions, and to convince citizens that those decisions – on spending, program support, cuts, and perhaps even tax increases – are really in the public interest. However, in his relatively short speech, Corzine was not so clear about how he would balance the budget and achieve fiscal integrity. The specifics will come next month in his budget proposal. But he did present several precepts that the listener would have to assume will presumably guide him as he hones his policy agenda and puts together his first budget. The problem is that these precepts are themselves vague and subject to interpretation. What this does is perpetuate uncertainty about what the new Governor means when he talks about “reforming” New Jersey. For example, Corzine spoke of New Jersey as being “one state” and regards his oath as “…a solemn covenant to serve ‘impartially and justly’ for everyone.” Praiseworthy words to be sure, but what does he mean by them? When Jim Florio was governor, he too spoke of “one New Jersey,” arguing that the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” had to be bridged as a matter of justice and practicality. Many of New Jersey’s future workers lived in urban areas, whose school districts – pre-Abbott v. Burke – needed more funding. Is this what Corzine is getting at, that the needy require more help and that others will have to fund that help and put their own concerns on hold? Or, might he be suggesting that high-taxed, middle-class suburbanites, whose school districts spend less per pupil than the Abbott ones do, are getting a raw deal? Citing school funding as well as child welfare, housing and state government borrowing as examples, Corzine also complained that New Jersey lacks “self-government.” Instead we have “government by judicial fiat born of inaction or more regrettably of neglect…rooted in private or political gain, at the expense of the public interest.” It’s hard to remember a more trenchant criticism of our state’s political system. Clearly the Governor wants elected officials to reclaim their roles as policy-makers, but only if they clean up their acts first. But Corzine’s statement can also be regarded as a criticism of the substance of the Court’s decisions, including its ruling in Abbott v. Burke. Does the Governor want to generate discussion among legislators about the “thorough and efficient” clause of the state constitution and perhaps consider amending it to reflect fiscal reality and common educational goals, not a funding formula based on the state’s wealthy districts happen to spend? Talk about reclaiming government! This may please many suburbanites but probably not a lot of urban residents who supported Corzine in high numbers last November. The Governor went on to say that New Jersey has used fiscal gimmicks far too long to mask fiscal realities. Now the state is broke, and it “…must put its fiscal house in order…(and)…balance the books.” Fiscal responsibility also requires the state to restore the Transportation Trust Fund, continue the school construction program and start fully funding public employee pensions. The question, of course, is how? In his Inaugural Address Corzine gave a couple of answers. One is that the state must learn to live within its means. This requires aggressive management and cost containment. He said, “We will examine every program, measure performance, demand more for less, and root out spending that merely serves political, not public, purposes.” In his mind, having an elected state comptroller will help control spending and assure accountability. Corzine added that although fiscal and tax questions are “explosive”, this is no time to procrastinate. “The decisions should be taken; the tough choices made. Let us seize this moment and meet our challenges. We have no other choice,” he claimed. So, cut unnecessary spending and perhaps raise taxes? Corzine did not recommend the latter. And he has already run into some problems with his own party over what he means by unnecessary and politically motivated spending. Legislators are complaining that their constituents expect them to bring back state funds to help improve the quality of life in their districts. But Corzine has a bigger problem. While insisting that “the game is over” and that “New Jersey must put its fiscal house in order,” the Governor wants to help needy children, vulnerable seniors, and the overburdened middl
e class, provide for homeland and hometown security and encourage economic growth, in part by creating a stem cell research center. Oh, and don’t forget increasing those property tax rebates checks as he promised during the campaign. That would be an ambitious and expensive agenda during good times. Today, with the state’s huge deficit and need to deal with transportation, school construction and pension funding, it sounds unrealistic. As he wrapped up his Inaugural Address, Corzine said “…in the next four years, we can and put New Jersey on the right track,” admitting that implementing his agenda would indeed take time. He also said that politicians needed to trust the people with the truth. Well, the truth is that there is likely to be some tax hikes in the near future and perhaps some program cuts that will entail laying off state workers. The new Governor didn’t say either in his speech. But rest assured, New Jerseyans know how to read between the lines. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director 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 writes monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS magazine.

GOVERNOR JON CORZINE, BETWEEN THE LINES