New Jersey's Republicans agree with those editors and then some. GOP leaders have made a formal request through the Open Public Records Act for the release of a report on asset monetization contracted by the Governor's Office at taxpayers' expense and now in Corzine's possession. Republicans are also arguing that our representative system of government is being undermined if the Governor intentionally delays discussing his ideas on the subject until after the November 6th legislative midterms. They claim that citizens should hear his proposal, and candidates for state senate and assembly should explain their positions on that proposal so that voters can make a reasoned judgment about whom they want to support on Election Day.
That certainly sounds like good government. But to the Governor's Office, releasing an asset monetization plan before Election Day would be political suicide. A good number of Democratic legislators agree and have pressured Corzine to hold off revealing any details of what he would like to do. These Democrats apparently fear that voters would react to any asset monetization plan that enatiled big toll hikes similar to how people did to the tax hikes enacted by the Democratic-controlled legislature when Jim Florio was governor.
Such fears are unfounded and underestimate the willingness of New Jerseyans to respond to pragmatic arguments honestly made. It's grandiose promises that people know cannot be fulfilled that upset them more. But not as much as when they think their leaders are intentionally pulling the wool over the collective public's eyes.
Hey, wait a minute! That sure sounds familiar, and it should! Corzine said exactly that in his Budget Address back on February 22nd. Then the Governor seemed open to the possibility of selling or leasing the state's toll roads to the highest bidder, even if they were from foreign lands. After a strong public backlash against the idea of selling or leasing the Turnpike, Parkway or Atlantic City Expressway, and defections by Democratic legislators, Corzine issued his eight "core principles of asset monetization."
Among these core principles are the promise not to sell a toll road or lease one to a foreign entity. Thus, New Jerseyans will retain ownership over these key assets. In addition, the Governor pledged that in any monetization plan there will be sufficient money for road maintenance and upgrades and to assure public safety. The contracts of current toll road employees will be honored. And, the uses of the remaining proceeds – e.g., paying down the state debt, funding new state programs – will be identified "up front" by government officials before any borrowing occurs.
What about the tolls themselves, which will have to be increased to entice investors and enable the state to borrow money using the revenue from one or more toll roads as assets? The Governor said that the "toll schedule will be predictable," which isn't saying much. Corzine also promised to hold town meetings on asset monetization in all twenty-one counties in the state.
Well, the Governor has conducted some of those town meetings, but he has a way to go to reach twenty-one. In the meantime, Corzine has touted the idea of a public benefits corporation to oversee the monetization of the tolls roads and to pay back any money that is borrowed. Combined with his eight core principles, this is pretty close to a complete plan to discuss with citizens and other lawmakers. That's what makes the Governor's denial that there is a plan so strange.
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 is a member of the editorial advisory board of CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.