By David P. Rebovich
Many faces will change in the New Jersey state legislature after November's senate and general assembly elections. But the party in power – the Democrats – won't. However, whether those Democrats make much progress on key policy issues remains to be seen. That'sdueto several factors: the complexity ofthe policy issueslawmakers have to confront;structural features of state government; thedisagreements thatoften occur in a large majority party; and, the difficulty the minority party has hadin developing and generating support for policy alternatives.
These were the collective conclusions of two panels -one of distinguished former legislative leaders, the other of veteran political analysts – at Friday's "Insurance Day at the State House" forum conducted by the Insurance Council of New Jersey. The general session featured two Republicans – former Senate President John Bennett and former Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian – and two Democrats – John Russo, a former Senate President, and Joe Doria, the former Speaker who is finishing outhis term as a state senator. Patrick Murray, the Director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, and Tim Vercellotti, the Assistant Director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and I served on a panel on politics, public policy and the 2007 election.
While having different partisan affiliations, the four former leadersdid haveseveral similar experiences in the legislatureandobservations aboutthe contemporary political scene in Trenton. They lamented the decline in civility in the political process and reminisced about when, as Haytaian put it, "We didn't always agree but we got along." Bennett, who served as Senate Co-President with Dick Codey in the first two years of the McGreevey Administration, added that "When forced todo so, Democrats and Republican can work together…Necessity makes the system work."
When asked about the toughest challenges they faced as leaders, these veterans pols could have been talking about today's legislature. Russo cited dealing with differences among members of his own party on valueissues like the death penalty and on procedural ones like requiring an open discussion on every request for a budget appropriation. There were no Christmas tree items in the Russo-led senate! Bennett had to help usher legislation through senate committees that were evenly divided between highly opinionatedDemocrats and Republicans who wanted credit for new initiatives.
Haytaianhad the advantage of having a veto-proof Republican majority in the Assembly in 1992 that maderescinding Governor Jim Florio's one-cent sales tax hike relatively easy. What wasn't so easy wasgetting thehugeGOPcaucus to agree on over $1 billion in spending cuts from Florio's budget proposal to make thattax cut possible. Doriadiscussedthe strong personalities, individual values, and policy agendas ofassemblymen who are pressured to satisfy constituents because they had to run for office every twoyears.Persuading legislatorsin either chamber to adopt astatewide perspective on various pieces of legislationhas always been a challenge as well.In the meantime, as Doria noted, relationships between the legislature and the governor are rarely easy-going. Differences in perspectives and interests between the branches often slow down the state's ability to address certain issues, but "positive tension" and dialoguecan produce better policies in the long run.
Cooperation between legislators, even those of the same party, and between legislators and the governor is made more difficult by two other factors. One is that some media outlets focus on the foibles of politicians, the conflicts between them, and policy failures while giving success stories little play. All ofthis makes lawmakersmore cautious aboutpursuing comprehensive approaches to dealing with policy problems and to concentrate more on matters that affect their own constituents.
Thisrecalcitrance and individualism are reinforced by thefact thatmost legislative districts are safe for the incumbent's party and are drawn to be so. All of these leaders complained that safedistricts reduce political competition and along with it serious debate about issues that can lead to better policy-making. What this means in political terms is that Democratswill no doubt retain their majorities in both chambers of the legislature this falland at least until redistricting occurs after the 2010 census. What continued Democratic control of the legislature means in policy terms remains to be seen since it is difficult to satisfy the diverse and sometimes competing interests in aparty that has upwards of 50 seats in the Assembly.
Patrick Murray and Tom Vercellotti, two experienced pollsters,said that they arenot in the business of making predictions. However, both do not see the Democrats losing many seats, much less control, in this fall's legislative races. Yes, safe districts are the main reason, but there are otherfactors in play. Vercellotti noted that Governor Jon Corzine's budget proposal does not contain any new taxes and provides "just enough" property tax relief to satisfy many New Jerseyans this year at least. Andthe early settlement of the state workers' contract, which includes largeremployee contributionsfor their own health care – something the general public strongly supports -,also helps the party in power.
Vercellottiadded that there aresigns that people are feeling a bit more positive about government these days. Governor Corzine's approval ratingsimproved, even before his accident. And 78 percent of school budgets were approved in April, a bigincrease over last year and an indication, perhaps, that local taxpayers realize that more state aid to school districtsand direct property tax relief are on the way. Vercellotti believes that folks who show up to vote in school budget elections are likely to vote this fall, which is more good news for the incumbents.
Murray agreed that the property tax relief that lawmakers will provide this year will satisfy most residents for now. He does not believe that political corruption, which polls show is an important issue tomany New Jerseyans, will cause voters to indiscriminatelyturn against incumbent legislators. Murray added that the Governor's asset monetization plan is not popular but will not have to be voted on, or even debated, by legislators until next year.
Murray does see the possibility of some excitement this fall in several South Jersey districts. Democratsthink they can pick up senate seats in the 1st and 2nd districts and make a good run at winning another in the 14th, a clean election district. Republican believe that Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck will give incumbent Democratic Senator Ellen Karcher a tough battle in the 12th district and may be able to compete in the 3rd and 4th district senate races. To do the latter, Republican candidates and party organizations will need to raise a lot of many and, as Vercellotti put it, hope that investigations lead to more indictments that "..can jolt the public's confidence" in the party in power. But that hope won't replace a compelling campaign platform or party building activities in communities throughout the state,both ofwhich today's Republicans need to work on, according toformer Assembly Speaker Haytaian, in order to begin toimprove the GOP's fortunes.
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.