by David P. Rebovich
Governor Jon Corzine may not be back to work for a while, but this doesn't mean that there should not be any serious discussions or civil disagreements about state politics and public policy. Two veteran legislators and party leaders demonstrated that there can be both at the annual public policy forum of the Chamber of Commerce of South Jersey in Cherry Hill last week. Assemblyman Joe Cryan, the chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, and Senator Joe Kyrillos, the immediate past chair of the Republican State Committee, sparred about the state budget, the upcoming legislative primaries and general election, and the clean elections program and ethics reform.
When asked about whether Corzine's recuperation will affect this spring's budget process and how officials deal with the state's long term fiscal problems, Cryan made two observations. First, he noted that the Governor has good poll numbers and in his budget proposal does provide property tax relief and more aid for public schools and for higher education, which are certainly popular with many residents. As such, Cryan believes that this budget season will not be particularly contentious. And if Corzine remains out of work for several weeks, Acting Governor Richard Codey can carry forward Corzine's agenda with the cooperation of fellow Democrats and the respect of GOP legislators.
However, the state Democratic chair did admit that there is not likely to be any progress in dealing with the state's long term fiscal condition or banning dual office-holding. Corzine wants lawmakers to consider monetizing state assets to infuse the treasury with billions of dollars to help pay down the state debt or to contribute to the under-funded public employee pension system. But most New Jerseyans do not like the idea of monetizing state assets. And many legislators, including several Democrats, do not like the idea of banning dual office-holding for all public officials, especially for current ones. When he returns from medical leave, Governor Corzine will find himself having to educate the public about the advantages of asset monetization and convince lawmakers that ending dual office-holding will give citizens more confidence in their lawmakers and the political process.
Kyrillos disagreed with Cryan's assessment that this year's budget is an improvement over other recent ones. The former GOP state chair claims that New Jersey's huge debt, continued structural deficit, and obligations to the public workers pension and health insurance funds require lawmakers to ask serious questions that apparently will not be addressed by the Democratic-controlled legislature and the Governor – Codey or Corzine – this spring. Even before Corzine's accident, "New Jersey was in a freeze frame," according to Kyrillos, when state officials should have been doing more to cut costs, spending, and unneeded public sector jobs.
Will these different perspectives manifest themselves in this fall's state senate and assembly campaigns and in the next legislature? Well, first both parties have to get through a primary season that has had some rough spots. On the Democratic side, there has been considerable conflict in Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties over which candidates, including incumbents, would receive organizational support.
Cryan noted that the Bergen situation is resolved, in part because of Governor Corzine's intervention. But Cryan admits that his party will lose considerable experience in the Hudson and Essex county delegations due to retirements, planned or not. However, he also sees the turnover in several Democratic legislative seats as creating opportunities for younger party activists to bring new energy and ideas to Trenton."
Kyrillos's GOP faces lots of turnover in the legislature, too, due to a large number of retirements, especially in the Senate. These retirements will also cost the Republicans experience. But Kyrillos expects the Republican newcomers to the upper chamber, many of whom currently serve in the assembly, to be more engaged and more vocal than the folks they will succeed.
What will all this mean for the new legislature? According to Cryan, there will be more changes in the Senate and Assembly than those precipitated by intra-party conflict and retirements. He calmly announced that his party will target Republicans in districts 1, 2, 7, 8, 12, and 14 and expects to increase its majorities in both chambers of the legislature. The reasons for such optimism? Broad public support for Governor Corzine's agenda, more property tax relief, the Democrats' popular views on social issues, and the party's fund-raising advantage.
Kyrillos did not make any predictions about the Republicans prospects this November. But he did question Governor Corzine's commitment to bringing lawmakers from both parties to work on problems like property tax and ethics reform. Like most Republicans, Kyrillos believes that more savings can be realized by identifying inefficient and ineffective programs, including those in Abbott school districts. He asserted that the suburbs need stronger advocates in the State House and hopes that more pro-suburban Republicans will join him in the legislature next year. In any event, Kyrillos does see the possibility of coalitions of Democrats and Republicans emerging on such issues as economic development policy and consolidation and regionalization of municipalities and school districts.
When asked if there are tensions between suburban Democrats and urban ones that may be exacerbated if the party gains more seats in the districts it will target, Cryan was unconcerned. He insisted that all Democrats share values that find support among a majority of New Jerseyans. While the state's limited financial resources does mean that not everyone in the party's broad coalition can or will get everything they may want, Cryan believes that Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts is adept at reaching compromises that are fair.
Kyrillos and Roberts also raised some questions about the clean elections program and ethics reform generally. Both expressed concern about the state's experiment with publicly financed legislative campaigns. Kyrillos thinks the program is worth a try but expensive. This year it will cost over six million dollars. He isn't sure that independent groups can be effectively prevented from influencing elections and questions the wisdom of trying to silence people through campaigning finance reform.
Cryan noted that as campaign spending has increased so has voter turnout, a positive development in a democracy. He wonders what turnout will be in the three districts participating in the clean elections program. But that program will not prevent Cryan's Democrats from using the party's considerable fund-raising advantage from running generic, pro-Democrat ads statewide that may well benefit legislative candidates in whatever district they run. In the meantime, Kyrillos' Republicans will try to be stronger advocates for suburban and rural districts without seeming to call for more overall government spending. With the Abbott decision still the law, that's a hard argument to make. |
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.