First a slew of Republican legislators -ten in the Senate and three in the General Assembly – announced their retirements. Then came the growing pressures on Tom Wilson, the chair of the Republican State Committee, to step down or to be denied another term given the GOP's difficulties raising funds and complaints that the state GOP has not done enough party building at the local and county levels. And now, after a divisive primary in north Jersey's 40th district, controversial Bergen County Republican chair Guy Talarico announced his resignation.
New Jersey's Republicans need to regroup. Partisans, from staunch conservatives to social moderates, are calling for more than that and are furious that their party finds itself in such dire straits. After all, in the 2003 midterm elections Republicans could not capitalize on the controversies surrounding then-Governor Jim McGreevey. Property tax bills were skyrocketing, there were political scandals in the front office, and McGreevey's unsavory personal life was being scrutinized, and the GOP still managed to lose seats in the legislature.
Four years later, and another Democratic governor faces complaints about high property taxes and questions about his judgment in his own personal life. In addition, the state's ongoing fiscal problems, along with stories about influence-peddling and corruption, have kept the approval ratings of the Democratic-controlled legislature down in the dumps. Nonetheless, looking ahead to this fall's midterms, it is those same Democrats who have a pretty good shot at picking up a few few seats, not the Republicans.
What can the Republicans do? Whether new leaders are needed is for the State Committee to decide. But whomever is at the helm of the GOP will have a lot of work to do. Think fund-raising, party-building activities in municipalities and counties with lots of unaffiliated voters, message development, and increasing unity and morale among the rank and file throughout the state. And, yes, refereeing the ongoing philosophical debate over the Grand Old Party's core values and principles.
None of this will be easy. While New Jersey's Republicans have a strong record of donating money to the national party and its presidential candidates, they are less generous to the state committee or to challengers in state legislative races. Part of this is because the party is out of power. But if they ever expect to regain power in state government in the Garden State, Republican leaders must show long-time supporters and prospective ones that they are united and have meaningful policy alternatives to the Democrats who seem to have a lock on state government.
The unity issue should not be understated. The party is still suffering from internal disputes between its staunch conservative and moderate wings. Intra-party conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. That is if it helps public officials and the rank-and-file clarify what they have in common and how to deal with their differences civilly. Did this spring's primaries help in this regard? Well, even after bruising, contested primaries – like those in the 24th, 40th and the 26th districts -, party leaders and faithful tend to close ranks behind the nominees.
Republican legislative candidates are heavily favored to win in the above districts. The question is can the GOP and its candidates in other districts attract mores supporters from the state's large pool of unaffiliated voters? The State Committee could help by providing staff and financial assistance to local party organizations in areas where voters are up for grabs. But to get voters to come to the polls and cast their ballot for their party's candidates this fall, the Republicans need a message, one that includes some plausible policy alternatives that distinguishes them from the Democrats in power.
Last Wednesday, the day after the primary, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce and the ranking Republican on the Assembly Budget Committee, Joe Malone, tried to provide their party with a message and a plan. The message? As DeCroce put it, "Republicans believe that after five years of unprecedented spending growth, the state budget is still bloated with unnecessary and wasteful spending while providing too little in the way of property tax relief." And, the chief victims of the Democrats' mismanagement of resources are taxpayers in suburbia and rural areas.
How would the Republican correct this? DeCroce and Malone want to increase property tax rebates to 30 percent for people who make less than $200,000 and give those who make more than that a 20 percent rebate. This is a much more generous the plan recently approved by the Democratic-controlled legislature, which does not give the well-off any direct property tax relief. In addition, these Republicans want to increase state aid to suburban and rural school districts by an another $300 million. That's about a billion dollars of additional property tax relief, much of which will go to people living outside the traditional Democratic strongholds of urban and older, inner-ring suburban areas.
Given New Jersey's ongoing fiscal problems and difficulties in balancing annual budgets, Republicans need to explain how they will pay for this property tax relief. The plan is to cut $450 million in aid to Abbott school districts, save another $64 million by rejecting Governor Corzine's proposal to cut state income taxes for more low income people, cut $25 million in salaries for patronage jobs and $17.5 million in rental assistance subsidies, and $180 million in pork they anticipate that Democratic legislators will try to add to the budget.
Well, the Republicans can't be blamed simply for trying to help their constituents and to gain more supporters among unaffiliated voters. And, most New Jerseyans would praise efforts to identify government waste and low priority programs. DeCroce claims that the proposed cuts in aid to Abbott districts are justified because of high administrative costs in those districts and should not result in cuts on spending on direct educational services. Concerns about padded payrolls in Abbott districts, as well as poor progress of school kids for all the money spent in these districts, have been around for a long time and should be investigated more aggressively by state officials.
But so should spending patterns, outcomes and needs in the suburban and rural school districts that would benefit from the GOP plan. Presumably efficiencies and costs savings can be achieved in any government program and agency. That's what the legislature concluded in its special session on property tax reform. School districts are encouraged to seek savings by looking for ways to consolidate and regionalize services. Then there is the separate matter of what amount of programming – curricular and extracurricular, e.g., sports teams, advanced placement courses, arts programs – local taxpayers and the state should be required to fund in any school district, Abbott or not.
These are precisely the types of questions that legislators are supposed to address this fall when they discuss a new school funding formula, something that most lawmakers in both parties believe is necessary. That such discussion is not likely to get far before voters have to go to the polls to select a new legislature is lousy for democracy and public policy. Democrats, who will be targeting some suburban areas to pick up legislative seats, may well promise suburbanites that help in the form of more state aid for their schools is on the way. Without identifying funding sources for such aid, that would be an empty promise.
But the Republicans' new plan has its problems. Would the state Supreme Court actually permit a reduction is state aid to Abbott districts by $450 million because of legislators' assertion that there is waste in those districts? That's not likely. Would average New Jerseyans, including middle class suburbanites, buy the idea that well-off residents, those who make already benefit from the state's high reliance on regressive property taxes to fund school and municipalities, deserve tax relief? And, what about a little consistency in regard to seeking efficiencies and establishing educational priorities? What's good for the Abbotts should also be good for the non-Abbott's, one suspects. Unless, of course, the Republicans are simply trying to buy off more voters with their own promises of more tax relief and aid. The problem is that this is the game that Republicans have always accused the Democrats of playing. And frankly, it's a game that the Democrats know how to play better.
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.