by David P. Rebovich New Jersey’s new Governor, Jon Corzine, may still be talking diplomatically about his transition team’s controversial recommendations to raise taxes and make big spending cuts. But the new Speaker of the General Assembly, Joe Roberts, put political niceties to the side and spoke bluntly about how he wants his chamber to begin dealing with the state’s budget problems. The veteran South Jersey legislator, who most political observers would call a progressive, perhaps even liberal Democrat, revealed his strong pragmatic streak last week. The Speaker directed the Assembly to begin conducting budget hearings now to identify cuts in state spending in order to close the $5 billion to $6 billion shortfall projected in next year’s budget. This is a bold move, especially since Governor Corzine has not given many hints about what he may want to do to balance the budget. But Roberts and his Assembly colleagues have a history of taking the initiative on budget balancing. Last year when Richard Codey was Acting Governor and Senate President, Roberts, then-speaker Albio Sires, Assembly Budget Committee Chair Louis Greenwald and GOP chief Joe Malone developed their own list of spending cuts totaling some $500 million. Codey accepted about half of those cuts and claimed that the rest involved spending that the state was required to make. One year later Roberts has rallied key assemblymen on both sides of the aisle to look for waste, inefficiency and low priority programs. The Speaker sent letters to every Assemblyman stating his intention to hold early hearings on the budget and to prevent the chamber from voting on any bills that require more spending. He also announced that he is willing to look carefully at the GOP’s plan to cut $1 billion that the caucus put together last year. In seeking ways to save money Roberts wants assistance from the Office of Legislative Services, the state auditor, and even government employees. The Speaker is encouraging the latter to submit their ideas about budget cuts – anonymously, if they wish – to a new web site. The reactions to Roberts’ plan have been positive. Assemblyman Malone said he was “ecstatic” because the Speaker’s ideas represented a responsible approach to budgeting and “a quantum leap in bipartisanship.” Codey, back as Senate President, supports the effort to seek more cuts. And Governor Corzine was pleased that more people were looking into ways to save taxpayer dollars. Those are polite words from Corzine. But let’s face it. The Governor prepares a budget proposal and presents it to the legislature for consideration, and the process continues from there. True, this practice may make proud legislators feel like passive participants in the most important decision-making process in state government. However, it does give them political cover, since the Governor is the one who has to recommend unpopular spending cuts or freezes and tax and fee hikes. In most cases legislators, especially Democratic ones, try to add spending onto the Governor’s budget to help their own constituents. Even if the Governor uses his line-item veto to cut so-called Christmas tree items from the budget, legislators can still look like the “good guys” in state government for at least trying to help the folks back home. So why the change in strategy this year? In 2005, an election year, Democrats and Republicans in the Assembly sought and recommended big spending cuts to free up funds to be able to restore property tax rebates checks to their 2004 levels. They got half of what they wanted. This year legislators have a different motive. They want to get ahead of any tax hikes that seem inevitable given the state’s fiscal condition. Like the Governor, Roberts recognizes that it is smart, even necessary politics to cut waste and inefficiency before asking New Jerseyans to pay higher taxes. Roberts and his Assembly colleagues also seem genuinely committed to getting rid of low priority spending and programs in the budget and to start thinking about controlling mandated expenditures. Greenwald proclaimed that his Budget Committee is “…not going to hold back on anything.” That includes the public employee pension system. He and Malone plan to ask Cabinet members who Corzine retained from the McGreevey-Codey era to attend hearings first and soon! For his part, Malone wants to see arts programs pared and the current distressed school districts examined to determine if some should no longer receive extraordinary amounts of state aid. If those sound like fighting words, well they are. Roberts and his supporters apparently want to send a message to at least three audiences. One is the general public which, polls show, want state officials to balance the budget by making cuts in spending before considering any tax hikes. Another, of course, is the new Governor and his Administration. Roberts want Corzine to know that the legislature will be equal partners, not mere followers, in policy making. Indeed, by jump starting budget hearings before the Governor has completed his budget proposal, the more experience Speaker and his fellow veteran assemblymen will be digging up some of the proverbial bodies in state government that they and past governors have buried. Then there various interest groups, some that often support Democrats, who need to get with the program, too. Although the state faces a $6 billion shortfall, many groups – like educators, contractors, construction and trade union works – will be lobbying the legislature to maintain or even increase funding for aid and preferred programs. But it there ever was a time to say “no,” not out of spite but to educate people about the new fiscal and political reality, this is it. It is also a time for Democrats in the legislature to recognize that if there will be a constitutional convention on property tax reform, that convention should address the question of spending on education and county and municipal services. If not, maybe the Governor will get the jump on that important issue. In any event, Corzine let it be known that he does understand how mandated expenditures dominate the budget and drive up state spending. He told NJN’s Jim Hooker that he is pleased that the Assembly will look for spending cuts because legislators will discover that next year’s budget cannot be balanced by cuts alone. Thus, some tax and fees hikes will likely be needed. But does Corzine mean that mandated spending, be it for state aid, compensation or programs, be left alone while other programs are cut and taxes are increased? Selling any tax hikes to residents will be easier if the Governor and the legislature convince people that mandated expenditures will also be subject to scrutiny, evaluation and cuts. After all, there’s nothing to say that mandated spending cannot be wasteful, inefficient, or low priority. Ask any New Jerseyan. You don’t have to be a former CEO or a current legislator to know that. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (wwww.rider.edu). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.