Corzine and the leadership question

Christopher Christie received some criticism for complaining about how Stuart Rabner's confirmation as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was being delayed by politics as usual. After all, asked the critics,shouldn'tthe U.S. Attorney, who has the power – and has used it – to investigate and indict state and local officials, keep his editorial opinions to himself lestit seem that he istacitly threateningany recalcitrant legislators? But concerns about the appropriateness of Christie's comments were quickly replaced bythe chatterof some legislators and members of the mediaabout the substance of his remarks, particularlyhis assertion that there is a lack of genuine leadership in the State House.

By leadership, Christie meansthe willingness and ability of those in power to stand up for whom and what they believe in.Whenthe U.S. Attorney made that point he was of course referring to what he perceived to be a failure on the part of Governor Jon Corzine, Senate President Richard Codey, and Senate Judiciary Committee chair John Adler to castigateanyone who was exercising senatorial courtesy to keep the highly qualifiedRabner from being quickly confirmed. To which Codey and then Corzine responded that leaders must respect the separation of powers,established procedures, and given the importance of the post Rabner was up for, the need for a thorough review.

However, senatorial courtesy does not require its invoker to explain why he or she is stopping a nomination. Corzinewould soonadmit his frustration with Senator Nia Gill for refusing to respond tomedia inquiries about why she was holding up the Senate's consideration of Rabner. When Christie blasted this process days earlier, this writer assumed that the U.S. Attorney thoughtsenators were holding upRabner'sconfirmation to try toextract some benefit from the Governor. It's certainlynot a news flash that quid pro quois part of democratic politics.But Christiebelieves it astoo prevalent in New Jersey government and especially insidious when in infects the judicialconfirmation process.

Rabner met with Gill on Tuesday, and whatever problems the Senator hadwere apparently resolved. Rabner is expected to be confirmed as the state next Chief Justiceby the end of the week. Buthis confirmation willnotend discussion aboutChristie'slarger criticism aboutthe lack of leadership in Trenton. New Jersey's recent governors haveeach promised to tackle the state's biggest problems and tousher in a new era ofmore responsive, efficient and effectivegovernmentwhile keeping taxes down. Jon Corzine entered office espousing an even more ambitious reform agenda, one that would require him to take on the self-serving, calcified political and bureaucratic establishment.

As a former corporate executive with a businessperson's commitment to quality management and the bottom line,Corzine seemed to voters like a guy who would flesh out waste and give taxpayers a bigger bang for their buck. As a multimillionaire who financed his own campaigns,he presumablywould not bebeholden tothe political bosses and interest groupswho stand in the way of reform. And, as anambitious public figurewho left a safe seat in the U.S. Senate to help build a resume for a possible run at national office, Corzinewould havea strong motive toreform government and politics in a state that has areputation for fiscal irresponsibility, corruption, andhigh taxes.

And reforming New Jersey is precisely what Corzine has said he will do. The substance of that reform? Fiscal integrity, ethical integrity and property tax reform While respecting the fact that hewas sidelined for weeks by his serious injuries, it is still fair to ask how much progress the Governor is making on his reform agenda. And, whether he has demonstrated the leadership- in Christie's terms, whether he has "stood up" for what he has believed in – while trying to move that agenda forward.

Well, while the Governor has certainly made progress in fiscal, ethics, andtax policy,healso has hadsome significant setbacks. He proposed a one-cent hike in the sales tax last year to provide more revenue flow for a state government thatsuffers from a large structural deficit.He was willing to endure an eight-day government shutdown to get the legislature to pass this tax hike. Nowit is likely that all of the revenues from that sales tax hike will be returned to residents as property tax relief, ,because that's whatthe Democratic-controlled legislature wants to do.This despite the fact that thestate has an anticipated $2.5 billion deficit going into fiscal year 2009. In addition, after lamenting about how the huge state debt is irresponsible, the Governor is expected to support borrowing hundreds of millionsof dollars for stem cell research and open space.

On ethics reform, the Governor also capitulated. Corzine had insisted that he would not sign the new budget unless the legislature sent him a bill that banned dual office-holding for everyone, including currentlegislators who have other public posts. The legislature will send him a bill that protects currentdual officeholders, and the new budget will be signed. And, there has not been any progress on banning pay to play or wheeling at all levels of government, two other priorities of the Governor.

What about property tax reform? Well, it's now called property tax relief. The good new is that school districts and municipalities will receive increases for the first time in five years, and homeowners will get rebate checks that average over $1,000. A stricter cap on local and school spending increaseshas alsobeen instituted. But other cost control measures that the Governor supported, such as a powerful state comptroller and mandating theregionalization of services and perhaps the consolidation of school districts and towns,werewatered down. And, no action was taken on a much anticipated new school funding formula that suburban districts hope will help them deal with increasing enrollments, at risk students, and special education costs.

In a legislative election year, Democrats seeking reelection will prefer to focus on the positives – a budget with no new taxes,the increased property tax relief, that dual office-holding ban, and a more transparent budget process. But thereisa lot of work left to be done to improve the state's finances, to clean up politics, and to decrease the reliance on property taxes. Is Governor Corzine still committed topursuingthis agenda?

Well,Wednesday night the Governor joined Christie on the dais at the Employer Legislative Committees of New Jersey 2007 dinner.After some good-natured teasing of Christie, Corzine spoke comfortably and confidently about his agenda for economic growth. He noted that there will be tax cuts for business in the new budget, that his Administration hasdecreased red tape to expedite business expansion and relocation here, and his own commitment to improving the state's infrastructure and partnership with businesses to encourage growth.

Corzine also admitted that his Administration has a "full agenda ahead of us." He said, "…We know we are not done with propertytax reform…(and that)…the ethical climate of the state must reflect the character ofpeople who live in the state."He added that "We have to have the resources to invest in our future," to build mass transit and schools and to make sure that our university system can do its job. But the Governor said, "The way it stands today we do not have the money to invest in our future." For that reason, he hopes that when he talks about plans for asset monetization in the near future, thebusiness community giveshim a fairhearing. The Governor said to the audience of over 300business people and lobbyists, "I need your need."

Asking for help is not inconsistent with leadership and, in Corzine's case, is quite consistent with his call for continued partnerships with businesses to try to improve the state'sclimate for business. On these terms, the large audience seemed pleasedby Corzine's remarks. But whatwas notaddressed was why there has been less progress on thematters of fiscal integrity, ethical integrity and property tax reform, all of which impactdirectly or indirectly on the state's business climate. If the Governor can askthe business communityfor help selling asset monetization, an unpopular for the good of the state,why not ask for help from business andother groupsintaking on those in the political establishment who are standing in the way of other popularreforms? That's the kind of leadershipthat the state needs and, one suspects, that most New Jerseyans want fromthis Governor.

David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics ( Healso writes aregular column, "On Politics," for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.
Corzine and the leadership question