by David P. Rebovich It isn’t the property tax relief or reform that New Jerseyans want. Nor is it any guarantee that waste, fraud and abuse will be eradicated from every nook and cranny of government. But the CORE Reform Plan presented last week by Joe Roberts, the Speaker of the General Assembly, and other key legislators is good public policy and smart politics, both of which the Democrats in Trenton can use these days. The Plan may also be a prelude to bigger changes in government operations, spending and taxes. However, as Roberts pointed out at a well attended press conference, achieving administrative efficiency, effective policies, and lower property taxes will require citizens and public officials to look at politics and government structures differently, and getting both to do so may not be so easy. CORE is an acronym for the following: Clearing hurdles to shared services; Overriding waste in schools; Reining in pension abuses; and, Empowering citizens. New Jerseyans do look to state government for help in keeping property taxes down through more aid to municipalities and school districts or with bigger rebate checks. In these difficult budget times, neither will be forthcoming. But according to Roberts, state government can help citizens and their local governments and school districts help themselves and that’s what CORE purports to do.. The reforms proposed in the CORE plan gives “…residents and local officials new tools and strategies to cut waste, create efficiencies and drive down local costs.” Such cost cutting is, of course, a good in itself and can provide some immediate relief, however modest, to property taxpayers. Seeking efficient practices and effective policies is also a necessity as the state considers long term property tax relief. Roberts said, “These measures will help ensure that when we identify new means of property tax relief – as we must – the money won’t vanish into the current backwards and bloated structure.” By “backwards and bloated structure,” Roberts means the 566 municipalities and 616 school districts in this small state. The Speaker admitted that New Jerseyans’ fixation on the idea of home rule, and the deference of state officials to this fixation, has been a barrier to regionalizing municipal and educational services and to consolidating communities. However, Roberts noted that “home rule” is an illusion, albeit a powerful one. As the late Alan J. Karcher, himself one of New Jersey’s most able Speakers, wrote in the landmark book, NEW JERSEY’S MULTIPLE MUNICIPAL MADNESS, “municipalities are mere creatures of the state, and nothing more…All actions of every and any type taken by a municipal governing body are exercised in a derivative manner, and are restricted to those matters specifically delegated to them by the legislature.” The implications of this are clear. State government officials can force the consolidation of substate jurisdictions – municipalities, school districts and counties. Forced consolidation is not Roberts’ goal or the purpose of the CORE Reform Plan. But citizens who complain about high local property taxes that pay for their municipal government, school district and county government need to ask themselves two questions. Can their tax burdens can be decreased by changes in administrative practices and government structures? And, is it ethical for citizens to ask the state to provide more aid to support expensive administrative practices and government structures when less costly alternatives can be pursued? The CORE Reform Plan aims at making it easier for communities and citizens to transform the very expensive status quo by streamlining the current 337 separate “…confusing, contradictory and counterproductive” laws governing regionalization and shared services into a uniform statute. Barriers to seeking shared service arrangements will be removed. The Department of Community Affairs will also develop efficiency benchmarks for various services provided by local government. Municipalities that do not meet these benchmarks will not be eligible to receive any funds through the Legislative Initiative Block Grant program. In addition, small communities will be encouraged to consider the “township” model of government that enables them to preserve local identity while consolidating governance and service delivery under a large, more efficient municipality. Roberts cited Woodbridge Township and Gloucester Township as two examples of places where citizens enjoy the best of both. And, Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula explained how several communities in Somerset County are already sharing services and practicing regionalization. To combat inefficiency in schools, another cause of high property taxes, the CORE Reform Plan proposes the creation of “super” county school superintendents and granting them the “broad authority to eliminate waste and overhead.” Such officials could encourage shared services, provide administrative support for school transportation, purchasing and accounting by local school districts and promote joint purchasing in the county. Three especially important powers that Roberts’ wants these “super” superintendents to have are approving or disapproving compensation packages for local school superintendents; eliminating non-operating school districts and authorizing referenda to create K-12 districts; and reviewing local school budgets, vetoing excessive administrative expenses, and calling for audits on administrative spending. In addition, the CORE plan calls for the formation of a bipartisan “School Aid Reform and Accountability Task Force.” This group, headed by Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman, has four huge responsibilities. By September its 13 members – 7 legislators and 6 public members – will recommend a new school funding formula; determine the costs to provide a thorough and efficient system of education “…in light of the taxpayers’ burden of providing education”; identify best practices for achieving student learning; and, recommend an equitable, adequate school funding formula based on a community’s ability to pay in order to keep property taxes down. The CORE plan also addresses pensions abuses and aims at empowering citizens through some election reforms. Responding to well-publicized reports of elected and appointed officials receiving big pensions, Roberts wants the Assembly to hold hearings on the matter. Assemblywoman Nellie Pou noted that the legislature needs to take steps to guarantee the solvency of public employee pension plans for the merit system personnel for which they were designed. She also wants to end pension padding in its various forms and to cap sick leave time. These are the kind of common sense reforms that people expect, especially when they are being asked to pay more taxes. Citizens concerned about the cost and quality of public services can be further empowered by a variety of other measures. Roberts recommends that municipal and school budgets, including salary and benefits information on local officials and administrators, be made available to citizens in an easy to understand format. He also suggests moving school board and fire district elections to November to increase voter turnout. Residents would not vote on school budgets that were under the state cap. Those over it would be subject to a binding vote by local residents. And “super” county school superintendents would also review local school districts budgets and could cut excessive costs without appeal. Fire districts budgets would also be subject to a new cap and strict oversight by the Department of Community Affairs. And, Roberts wants local residents to be able to vote in a binding referendum on proposals related to shared services with neighboring communities. This power would enable citizens to circumvent obstruction to change by local officials who may have a vested interest in the current, and expensive, local government structures and ways of delivering services. The CORE Reform Plan has been generally well-received as representing a step in the right direction to help save taxpayer dollars during these difficult times. When pressed as to whether his plan was a substitute for the property tax reform that Democrats promised during the campaign last year they would deliver, Roberts insisted it wasn’t. In fact, he and his Democratic colleagues in the Assembly have long supported a so-called citizens’ convention on property tax reform. Governor Corzine also supports such a convention. And now Senate President Richard Codey is interested in having a special legislative session soon after the new budget is signed to discuss how to proceed on property tax reform. But with uncertainty about when and how the state will proceed on the property tax issue, it makes sense for Roberts to push forward with his own reform efforts. In fact, his reform efforts will require public officials and citizens alike to consider issues that should be part of any discussion of tax reform. These include how efficiently and effectively government spends taxpayer dollars and how much those taxpayers can reasonably be expected to pay for government goods and services. And for government personnel! The CORE Reform Plan focuses on saving money through consolidation, regionalization, administrative efficiencies, weeding out abuse, and establishing standards for services. Although Roberts and his colleagues did not mention this, these reforms will likely lead to cuts in jobs and not just administrative or patronage ones in municipal governments and school systems. Similarly, looking honestly at government spending requires not just reconsidering the compensation packages, including pensions, of administrative personnel but of merit system employees and unionized teachers who, after all, constitute most of the municipal and school district workforce. A fair question for the reform-minded is if it equitable for average New Jerseyans to pay for family health benefits for government and school district employees when most taxpayers don’t get the same benefits from their private sector employers. The issues that the School Aid Reform and Accountability Task Force” will address are particularly interesting and controversial. The task force will apparently take head on the question of what constitutes a “thorough and efficient system of education” and not simply accept the Court’s decision that it is what the state’s wealthiest 100 districts spend on their students. The inequity that has resulted from this decision is that most middle-income, non-Abbott school districts spend thousands of dollars less per pupil than the wealthy districts or the distressed ones. How can this be fair or constitutional? In addition, there are several questions being raised about spending practices and poor educational outcomes in those heavily funded distressed districts. Whether Speaker Roberts really intends the CORE Reform Plan to generate all these contentious questions is not clear. But as the Governor and legislators in both parties consider how to deal with property tax reform, it certainly seems to be a good thing that local government and school officials, public employees, and citizens prepare themselves for the various issues that need to be discussed. In the meantime, in a year when the Democratic-controlled state government will ask citizens to accept state aid freezes, program cuts, and tax hikes – none of which are pleasant -, Roberts’ CORE Reform Plan enables him and his fellow assemblyman to tell constituents that they are providing some help. But that help will require citizens and local officials to change the way they think about politics and service delivery in their communities. 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 weekly 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.