You've may have seen the television commercial featuring Robert Wagner in which he says, "I know, it sounds too good to be true, and you probably have a lot of questions." Wagner is asking seniors who need cash to make ends meet to look into taking a reverse mortgage. The respected actor explains that byusing their homes as collateral, seniors can receive money now that they will not have to pay back. Their heirs will have to do that. But the program may be just what some folks need to meet their financial obligations, maintain their current life-styles, and have a few bucks to do some things they always wanted to do.
Heck, that sounds something like "asset monetization," Jon Corzine's idea for putting New Jersey state government on firmer financial footing that presumably will not be a big burden on current taxpayers but may upset their heirs!Asset monetization, however, will be a much harder sell than a reverse mortgage.Polls show that most New Jerseyansrejectthe idea.The Governor previously announced thathe mayvisit the state's twenty-one counties to explain asset monetization – the concept and his yet undeveloped plan – to skeptical citizens.On Wednesday he said that he might pay for an advertising campaignto help the cause.
Now Jon Corzine can't be confused with the suave Mr. Wagner, and it's not clearif folks will pay attention toa television or radio ad onsuch acomplex policy issue. To make matters worse, the Governor has to deal with legislators – not just Republicans but many of his fellow Democrats – who have already announced thatthey will not support asset monetization. If, that is,Corzine's plan calls for the sale or lease of government assets like the toll roads to a private, profit making company, especially a foreign one. The Governor insists that he is no longer interested inthose options and instead wants to consider creating a public benefits corporation. The latter would enable the state to retain ownership of itsassets and to borrow against them.
Nonetheless, New Jerseyans will need to be convinced that the Governor does not want to sell or lease the Turnpike, Parkway or Atlantic City Expressway, and that's anargument in favor of running some television and radio ads. Corzine converted to the idea of a public benefits corporation long after citizens here read about howpublic officials inIndiana and Chicago leased or sold their toll roads to get some much needed cash for their governments. In the meantime, legislators here- concerned about their own reelection prospects this fall- haveincreased the public'sfears about whatCorzine really wants to do.By insisting that they will not support selling or leasing the toll roads, legislators seem to saying that those plans are still on the table.
So now the Governor plans to visit all twenty-onecounties and perhaps run some adsto speak for himself. As mentioned previouslyin this column, selling an asset monetization plan to the public may well be the key to Corzine's first term. Withoutit, hemay not be able to satisfy his pledge tobring fiscal integrity to state government or to pursue other policies that he believes will improve the quality of life in New Jersey.
Given the huge stakes involved, this campaignfor asset monetizationwould seem to present a major test of the Governor's political skills, primarily his ability to persuadecitizenswhat is good for them and good for the state. While the former Wall Street executive is more wonkish than charismatic, he has shown himself to be personable and down-to-earth in town meetings. However, in this case it seems that the Governor should worry less aboutemploying conventional political skills and tactics and instead play a rolewith which he should be quite comfortable.
That role is financial advisor, and his clients are his constituents.Yes, there is no denying that lawmakers from both parties can use a lecture on financial management, specifically on how not to spend beyondthe state's means or hock its future.Over the years Republicans and Democrats both have perpetuated thedelusion that we can have higher levels of government services without big increases in state taxes. And that's precisely what many, perhaps most,New Jerseyans – taxpayers, recipients of services, aid, and program support, and people who want government to do more for them and others- wanted to hear.
Now they have to hear a different message, an unpleasant one. Not only does the state have big financial problems,butcitizens must recognize their complicity in creating these problemsbyinsisting that lawmakers do what theycouldn't -give us morewithout paying for it. As agubernatorial candidate in 2005 Jon Corzine admitted as much.Despite the pressures of the campaign, he did notmake an iron-clad promise to notincrease taxes and was criticized for that. A year and half later, the Governorhas hiked some taxes, cut others, willnow provide residents with significant property tax relief, and made a few important new policy initiatives.
By recent standards in the State House,this is a pretty good performance. But notgood enough to enable Corzine to pursue the policy and programs he wants to in order to achieve his vision for a progressive and prosperousNew Jersey. The Governor believes thatstate government needs an infusion of some $15 billion to put itself in a position whereit can meet its short and long-term financial responsibilities and he, the legislature, and the public can move forward on some priority policies.In his mind, asset monetizationis the best way and, after the public understands precisely what he has in mind, perhaps the onlypolitically feasible wayto get the money.
How does the Governor make his case? For starters, Corzine himself does not need to apologize for the state's fiscal problems. Unlike many legislators from both parties,he was not around to make some of the key decisions and avoid others that have produced a recurring structural deficit, a gigantic state debt, and an under-funded public worker pension system. The structural features of government in New Jersey – the 21 counties, 566 municipalities and 616 school districts – drive up costs and taxes regardless of whom is inoffice. And, citizens' demands foreverything from excellent schools, clean beaches, safe streets, and local control have madethe cost of governmentin the Garden State more expensive.
In his planned town meetings across the state, Corzine should consider laying out these facts and politely laying the responsibility for the state's fiscal problemswhere it belongs – on all of us. Like a financial advisor, he should explain that citizens have some seriouschoices to make. If we wantgovernment services, programs and aid at current or higher levelsand to retain existing government structures, thencosts will be high. So will taxes. Yes, efficiencies in government operations can and should be pursued, but the savingsgained will not by themselves solve the state's budget woes.
Denyingthe need for tax increases to support spending habits and obligations, New Jerseyans now face big financial responsibilities. These can be met by hiking taxes – not a desirable approach in policy or political terms -; cutting programs and services and consolidating jurisdictions -neither or which is popular -; or looking at alternative means of finding funds.Like asset monetization. Yes, Corzine needs to be clear that if toll roads are monetized,tolls will increase, perhaps significantly so, over the years. He also needs to explainwhatthe impact on citizens will beifasset monetization is not pursued. All of this can't be accomplished in an ad, and not everybody can attend a town meeting. Hey, maybe like Robert Wagner does, the Governor can ask interested citizens to send for a free video for more information. I'd send for my copy.
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.