There’s a New Sheriff in the Statehouse

By STEVE ADUBATO New Jersey’s recent government shutdown offers a variety of lessons for all involved. Full disclosure, two decades ago, as a 26-year old freshman legislator, I participated in this annual wacky budget dance, and while it was nothing like we’ve just experienced, the budget process often comes down to an irresponsible game of Russian Roulette played with taxpayer money. Every year, the governor and the legislature attempt to balance the State budget by midnight of June 30th. The State Constitution says that if you can’t, or won’t, the government must shut down because the state can’t spend money on anything other than “essential services.” Until this past week, every time the government shutdown was threatened, a deal was struck at the last minute to keep the government running. How? Easy, by legislators making deals to get the Governor to support their pet projects or getting a good friend or political associate appointed to some state agency or commission. But beyond the politics, patronage and horse-trading, the worst part about past efforts to “balance the budget” was the massive borrowing (don’t worry, we’ll be out of office when the bill comes due) or one-shot fiscal gimmicks that can bring in big revenue but will not around the next year. We’re talking about selling state roads or dipping into some supposedly untouchable pot of money (like the unemployment fund) just to get your hands on some quick cash. There was gross underestimating of state government expenses and an irresponsible overestimating of state revenues, otherwise known as “cooking the books”. This was how New Jersey’s state budget was “balanced” up until this year, by using funny money and fiscal slight of hand. All of this was done by our government leaders, whose primary goal was to make it look like they were being responsible but never really making really tough choices. For as long as anyone could remember, the budget process in New Jersey has been a farce, a sham. Enter Jon Corzine. Sure, he was a U.S. Senator for six years, but New Jerseyans had no idea who he really was until these past few weeks. Corzine was working from a different script. He actually was attempting to match revenues to expenditures. He was trying to balance this budget and do it in a way that you had to respect. Corzine was willing to compromise, but not to the point of giving away the store, and going back to the old ways of doing business. This battle was never about a penny increase in the sales tax; it was about what the penny represented. Corzine realized that the only way to begin to attack this massive, $4.5 billion deficit would be to create a new source of recurring revenue. That penny increase in the sales tax represented $1.2 billion in new money. Sure, if you asked people if they wanted to see a penny increase in the sales tax, the answer would be “no.” But ask them if they would be willing to pay an extra penny on the dollar if it helped close a massive budget deficit and put the state back on a sound fiscal track, the answer might be different. Oh yeah, and by the way, that extra penny will help keep the government functioning so you can buy lottery tickets, go to the casinos, and get your license renewed at motor vehicles. Corzine stuck to his guns, even when the pressure was on him to fold, with growing public frustration. He understood what was at stake, while many Assembly Democrats pandered their way through this budget process, deathly afraid that voting for the penny sales tax hike would jeopardize their political future. Sometimes being a leader in government actually means having to lead, which often means doing what may appear to be unpopular, but you know to be right. It means having courage of your convictions. Corzine had it in spades while many Assembly Democrats were cowards. In the end, Corzine won, and the Assembly Democrats folded. Republican laughed on the sidelines, while many citizens suffered. More work must be done to get our fiscal picture truly back on track. A compromise that takes half of the sales tax revenue and uses it for property tax relief will be a real challenge. It means another $600 million in cuts must be found. It also means there will be more pain and sacrifice, more tough choices. Yet the good news out of Trenton this past week is that there is a new sheriff in town, and his name is Governor Jon Corzine. He is far from perfect, and will make many mistakes along the way, but in this latest budget battle, John Corzine stood tall and was a genuine leader, who acted like a grownup, making grownup decisions. That’s something the New Jersey State House hasn’t seen in awhile.

There’s a New Sheriff in the Statehouse