POLLS, POLITICAL INTRIGUE AND GAS POLICY

by David P. Rebovich Last week was a hectic, strange, but exciting one in New Jersey politics. There were poll results that energized the state’s Republicans, a gang that has not had much to be happy about the last few years. There was a standoff between two of the state’s most powerful Democrats – Governor Jon Corzine and Newark Mayor and state Senator Sharpe James. One of New Jersey’s most popular politicians – Richard Codey – offered his successor some unsolicited advice. College students came to Trenton to demonstrate about cuts in state aid that can result in big tuition hikes and program cuts. Governor Corzine offered some ideas to save New Jersey drivers some money on gasoline. And just when Tom Kean, Jr. was looking like a real contender against U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, some of his fellow Republicans tried to undermine him. First the poll results, courtesy of Quinnipiac University, that made the Republicans so giddy that they were comparing Corzine to former Governor Jim Florio. A month after making his much anticipated Budget Address and only three months after assuming office, the new Governor finds himself with an anemic 35 percent approval rating. New Jerseyans don’t like Corzine’s proposed sales tax hike and, despite the spending cuts and freezes in the budget, believe the Governor should have cut more. Exactly what is uncertain. But it’s a fair guess that most people are thinking that someone else’s programs should face the axe, not the ones that benefit them. In the meantime, Democratic legislators are bucking Corzine on his unpopular budget proposal. Their concerns are understandable. The Quinnipiac Poll showed that only 26 percent of residents approve of the job the Democratic-controlled legislature is doing, probably because they regards them as responsible for the budget mess the new governor inherited. To add fuel to the fire, GOP legislative leaders pledged to give their votes in both the Senate and General Assembly to help Corzine pass comprehensive ethics reform and property tax reform, his two most important campaign promises that his fellow Democrats are choosing to ignore. New Jersey’s Republicans are still a decided long-shot to win majorities in either chamber of the legislature in November 2007. But last week they played their cards well. Corzine had a good moment, too. He met with members of the Newark City Council and Mayor James at the State House to discuss their plan to use $80 million to establish a nonprofit development agency. The Corzine Administration questioned the legality of the plan. James and the Council members challenged the Governor’s authority to intervene in the affairs of Newark and accused Corzine of playing politics to help candidates on Corey Booker’s slate in the City’s upcoming mayoral and council elections. The Newark contingent made its case passionately. But Corzine did not back down and won some much-needed praise from editorial writers for standing up to a so-called “political warlord” in James. The problem for the Governor, however, is that he may well need that “warlord’s” vote in the Senate to get his budget approved. And despite James’s renegade status in his own party, some Democratic legislators expressed their displeasure over how the Governor treated their colleague. In fact, many Democratic lawmakers have been complaining about how Corzine neglected to bring them into discussions about the budget when he was preparing his proposal. Even Richard Codey, the former Governor and still the Senate President and still popular, decided to weigh in on the matter. Codey told NJN that while Corzine was a CEO in the private sector, he never held an executive position in government or spent much time working with or observing one, since his only political experience was as a member of the minority party in the U.S. Senate. Codey, who of course has both types of experiences, suggested that Corzine needs to understand the perspective of legislators to be a successful governor. While that is no doubt true, one wonders if Codey – a former governor himself – is telling members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate that they need to understand the perspective of the Governor to be successful legislators. After all, a governor, especially when preparing his budget proposal, must be concerned about the well-being of the entire state, not just one of 40 legislative districts. Codey surely remembers that many of his Democratic colleagues bucked him when he proposed eliminating the property tax rebate program budget because the state was broke. Well, the state is still broke, and now Corzine is making some unpopular recommendations of his own. One of the most unpopular is his proposal to cut aid to colleges and universities by $169 million. This would include a $1.2 million cut in funding to Rider University, my employer. Rutgers, my graduate school alma mater, will be especially hard hit. Along with folks from other state colleges and private institutions, Rutgers students conducted a rally on West State Street. They claimed that tuition hikes would make higher education hard to afford and that cuts in courses and programs would hurt educational opportunity in the state. My sympathy and self-interest on this matter to the side, those well-meaning college students need to do a little homework on state fiscal policy and the concept of equity and ask themselves some questions. Should broad-based taxes be increased to obtain more money for higher education? What if that means suppressing economic growth and job creation? Or, making some little old man on a fixed income or single mother struggling to make ends meet pay higher state taxes? Why not ask college faculty and administrators to accept pay freezes as an act of solidarity and support? And, why not consider that college graduates do earn over their lifetimes some $500,000 to $1 million more than high school graduates and thus, especially to working class New Jerseyans, seem able to afford higher tuition? Well, if Governor Corzine is going to raise your or your children’s tuition by hundreds of dollars, he will try to save you some money on gasoline. With the price at the pump hitting $3 a gallon, the Governor is considering a pilot program to give drivers a self-service option at stations on the New Jersey Turnpike. Self-service would presumably save drivers 6 cents a gallon. Corzine received national publicity for trying to help motorists in his state deal with escalating gas prices. But if his idea is enacted, the average driver here will save only about $60 a year. That’s hardly enough to make up for those anticipated higher tuition costs, a hike in the sales tax, and likely increases in local property taxes. There have been several polls on the Menendez-Kean U.S. Senate race. They all show a close contest, which is somewhat of a surprise given that New Jersey is a “blue” state and that Senator Menendez has received a lot of free media. Stuart Rothenberg, the respected political analyst, recently called New Jersey the GOP’s best shot to pick up a U.S. Senate seat this fall. That remains to be seen. But some of Kean’s fellow Republicans aren’t going to make his chances of winning any better. Some conservatives object to Kean’s positions on stem cell research and abortion and are supporting a political unknown, John Ginty, in the GOP senate primary. New Jersey Right to Life, a non-partisan group, endorsed Ginty at its convention last week. Ginty will not win this primary. But he and his supporters may discourage other conservative Republicans – thought to constitute one-fourth of the party’s base – from turning out in the general election this fall. That’s apparently the price that Kean must pay for being pro-choice and pro-stem cell research. But if Kean does pay this price, Menendez will surely win. Incidentally, the most recent Quinnipiac Poll shows that 73 percent of New Jerseyans support stem cell research, while only 15 percent oppose it. Unable to pull the state’s GOP further to the right, conservatives seem content to see Democrats win statewide races here and then complain about them. There’s got to be a better strategy than this. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/edu). 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.

POLLS, POLITICAL INTRIGUE AND GAS POLICY