STATE BUDGET GIVES REPUBLICANS A CHANCE TO BE RELEVANT

by David P. Rebovich It snowed in Trenton briefly last week, a rare event for the capital city in April. But inside the State House, in private homes, and at town meetings throughout New Jersey it was politics as usual for a budget season. Not surprisingly, Republican legislators were complaining loudly about various aspects of Jon Corzine’s spending and revenue raising plan. What was surprising was that the minority party was getting some attention. In part, this was because key Democratic legislators were saying some of the same things as their GOP counterparts. Interest and advocacy groups were also making their appeals – some routine, some compelling – for restoring or increasing aid to their preferred programs. And, the new Governor saw his approval ratings decline. Corzine’s honeymoon has apparently ended. So too have the confidence and consensus that marked the state’s Democrats last fall and in the early days of the new Administration. These disappeared in intra-party conflict about what to do about the new state budget during these tough times. The question now is whether New Jersey’s Republicans can take advantage of the Democrats’ disunity and public discontent about Corzine’s budget proposal. Yes, typically it is easy for the opposition party to criticize a governor’s budget proposal. Someone always wants more program support, state aid, and tax cuts and less spending. But it is hard to make criticisms stick. To do that, it is first necessary to draw attention to the especially unpopular aspects of a budget, like a big tax hike or painful spending cuts, and pound these into the public’s mind. Then specific complaints should be used to develop an argument that there is something fundamentally wrong with the governor’s overall fiscal policy. Finally, to become genuinely relevant, the opposition party needs to present some credible alternatives. What are New Jersey’s Republicans doing? After missing what looked like a good opportunity to make some gains in last November’s elections, are GOP lawmakers done licking their wounds? Have they moved beyond the simplistic argument that didn’t work in the fall campaigns, i.e., state government can keep taxes down and even reduce them by making big spending cuts. Or, have they figured out a way to make this point more convincingly? While it true that a majority of New Jerseyans do not support Corzine’s proposed one point increase in the sales tax, folks here also do realize that the state does have big budget problems that cannot be easily solved. That being said, Republicans do have to harp on the proposed sales tax increase, and other revenue hikes in the proposed budget, as a first step in developing a case against the Governor’s budget. Alex DeCroce, the even-tempered Assembly Minority Leader, announced last week that the GOP will ask citizens to sign a petition protesting Corzine’s tax hike proposals. By itself, this petition may garner a headline or two but not have a big effect on public opinion. After all, Corzine’s budget does not contain the kind of tax hikes that Jim Florio’s did in 1990. Nor is this Governor considered the confrontational and condescending sort that Florio came across as in his first months in office. As such, a new version of Hands Across New Jersey, the anti-tax movement that helped do in the Democratic-controlled legislature and then Florio, is not likely to reemerge this year. But New Jersey’s Republicans are doing quite a bit more than just complaining about the sales and other tax hikes that Corzine has recommended. They are updating their list of spending cuts, totaling a billion dollars, that they created last year. Interestingly, Democratic legislative leaders have said that they want to take a careful look at those suggestions. While the Governor has held some town meetings to try to explain his budget proposal to citizens throughout the state, Republican legislators have decided to hold some of their own. They will begin with events in GOP districts where, yes, they do expect to find sympathetic audiences. But holding your own gripe sessions, like conducting a petition drive, will only get the GOP so far. That’s why the Republicans are taking three other tacks on the budget. They are calling for an evaluation of the current Abbott school districts with an eye toward removing from the list those districts whose tax bases have significantly improved. The funds freed up can presumably be used to provide additional aid to suburban districts that are not in good financial shape themselves. Many party faithful wonder why last fall Republican candidates, especially Doug Forrester, did not call for a constitutional amendment of the “thorough and efficient system of education” clause of the State Constitution. GOP leaders have still not reached the point where they want to make this argument. But they are now committed to tapping into growing public discontent about the fact that spending per pupil in Abbott districts exceeds that in many middle and working class suburban ones by $5,000 and more. Some Republicans aren’t giving the suburbs a free ride either. The ranking Republican member of the Assembly Budget Committee, Joe Malone, is calling on smaller school districts and municipalities to consider regionalizing services or consolidating jurisdictions, ideas that are not popular in a state where residents identify strongly with their hometowns and enjoy having local control. Anthony Bucco, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, is taking the lead on another position. That is, Corzine’s budget contains too many tax hikes and not enough spending cuts. Bucco notes that the Governor’s proposal increases spending by $3 billion without providing New Jerseyans with any more property tax relief. Do these qualify as credible alternatives that will enable Republicans to regain relevance on the state’s political scene? Well, the answer to this question seems to be yes and no. Yes, because their views are consistent with majority sentiment in the state, which means the Corzine Administration will feel obligated to answer the questions raised by Republicans in the budget approval process. But before anyone starts predicting a resurgence for the GOP, it is important to consider two things. One is that Democratic legislators agree with many of the points the Republicans are making. And, the Governor himself has already expressed concern about high spending in Abbott districts and wants some of them to have their state aid frozen like he has proposed for non-Abbott districts. Expect the Democrats to treat their Republican counterparts respectfully. But as members of the majority party, they are likely to take credit for any citizen-friendly changes in the final budget no matter who came up with the ideas first. In addition, Governor Corzine himself may try to take some pressure off by talking about two policy ideas that are more popular than his budget. One is his plan to restore ethical integrity to politics at all levels of state government. This means eradicating practices like pay to play, dual office-holding and pension padding. The other involves calling for a constitutional convention on property tax reform. The Governor has said that he wants to wait until he gets his first budget squared away before tackling this big problem. But given the public’s mood and the Republicans’ new found feistiness, Corzine may want to consider moving up his timetable on ethics and property tax reform or at least remind people of his commitment to these reforms. If not, the GOP may be able to make some noise and score some points on these issues, too. 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 and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine, and is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that offers weekly commentary on national political developments.

STATE BUDGET GIVES REPUBLICANS A CHANCE TO BE RELEVANT