PRESSING PROBLEMS AND PREDICTABLE CAMPAIGNS

Republicans like to call themselves “the party of ideas.” Democrats revel in being “the party of the people.” This fall’s legislative campaigns will likely lend support to both parties’ claims. The Republicans do have some ideas about how to deal with the problems that the Democrats who control the legislature and Governor Jon Corzine have only partially addressed. For their part, the Democrats will claim that they have made reasonable progress on these problems and, perhaps more importantly, will continue to support policies and issue positions that appeal to most people in the Garden State.

There is no mystery about which problems Republican legislative candidates will focus on this fall. Political corruption, including the failure of the Democratic-controlled legislature and the governor to enact comprehensive ethics reform, is one. Another is high property taxes and the Democrats’s unsustainable property tax relief program. Then there is Corzine’s still secret, or yet to be complete, asset monetization plan that Republicans predict will add more bureaucracy to an already bloated state government and result in huge toll hikes on the Turnpike, Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway.

Are these problems big enough to help the Republicans pick up any legislative seats? On the surface, they would certainly seem to be. But most political observers and operatives don’t think they are. After all, most legislative districts are drawn to be safe. The state’s Democrats have three or four times more money in their campaign coffers than the Republicans have in their’s. And, GOP challengers will need a good deal of money to get name recognition and their own and their party’s message out.

While the structural and financial advantages of the Democrats will be hard to overcome, the Republicans do have a potentially strong message this campaign season. Especially if they don’t discuss political corruption, high property taxes, and fiscal gimmickry as separate issues but instead explain how these are connected and provide evidence that the Democrats are not committed to changing politics or public policy as usual.

On corruption, GOP candidates can argue that Democrats have failed to fulfill the Governor’s promise to restore ethical integrity to government and politics throughout the state. What happened to banning play to play at all levels of government and ending dual office holding for all public officials, including current ones? While homeowners may appreciate this year’s bigger rebate checks, property taxes continue to rise in part because pay to play is not banned in most municipalities and counties. In addition, because the Democrats refused to enact serious cuts in state spending, there is no guarantee that funds will be available next year for those big checks.

That’s why, we’re told, the Governor is plotting to spring an asset monetization plan on the public sometime after the November 6th midterms. While Corzine apparently believes that asset monetization is a relatively painless way to help state government achieve fiscal integrity, the Republicans claim that it will require big hikes in tolls. And any net savings to state government that the plan yields will be used by the Democrats to spend even more money on unspecified programs. In short, at the very time that New Jerseyans are clamoring for reform, the Democrats, assert their opponents, will give them the same old stuff.

But to capture the attention of

those reform-minded residents, the Republicans need two things. One is a clear target – a “bad guy” – who personifies the problems caused by the Democrats.

The other is a set of plausible alternatives to the Democrats’ policies that make sense to swing voters. Here the GOP runs into some difficulties. While Jon Corzine is not an especially popular governor, he is not viewed as a bogey-man. What about the Democrats’ legislative leaders? Well, the polls show that Senate President Richard Codey is the most popular politician in the state. The Speaker of the Assembly, Joe Roberts, is not well-known the general public and, in any event, has supported stronger measures to reduce property taxes than his fellow Democrats ended up approving.

Then there is the matter of the Republicans’ policy alternatives. Their ethics reform agenda, which is not so different from Corzine’s, is praiseworthy. However, it seems that residents here do not believe that either party has a monopoly on corrupt or self-serving politicians. Nor are many people likely to change their loyalties, especially to a party with which they disagree on key policy issues, because of a few bad apples.

What about property tax relief? Most New Jerseyans, except those who benefit from a high reliance on regressive taxes, want more property tax relief and reform. But non-seniors do not seem to favor school district consolidation or cuts in education programs or municipal services, at least in their own school districts and communities. Republicans are calling for cuts in spending in so-called Abbott districts. GOP leaders believe that a dozen or more Abbott districts have improved tax bases and should be removed from the special funding program. Combined with cuts in patronage positions in state government and in other low priority programs, state government can save well over one billion dollars a year. Republican legislative candidates will argue that this money can be used for additional property tax relief.

This sounds good, but. In fact, two “buts.” One is that any effort to remove school districts from the Abbott program will likely result in court battles that will take time to resolve. Perhaps these battles should be fought. But while they are, any increases in property tax relief provided by funds from the Abbott program will be put on hold. Then there’s the question of whether any savings the GOP identifies should in fact go toward more property tax relief. If Corzine’s “asset monetization” plan is unacceptable and is not approved – a real possibility -, state government will still need money to pay off its huge debt and to make solvent the public workers pension and health insurance funds. If the GOP is truly committed to fiscal integrity, shouldn’t its legislative candidates pledge to use any savings it identifies to pay the state’s bills rather than to give the money away?

Isn’t the latter what Republicans accuse the Democrats of doing? Yes, it is. But owing to their party’s philosophy of an activist government and their many constituent groups calling for government action, the Democrats make more spending to be a virtue. Given state government’s well-known fiscal problems, this campaign season Democratic legislative candidates will not be able to make any iron-clad promises for more aid or new programs. But they will espouse their support in principle for environmental causes, needy people, the elderly, organized labor, educators and students, various racial and ethnic minority groups, residents of declining urban areas and in growing suburban ones, pro-choice advocates and lesbians, and public employees.

That’s a lot of people and potential voters. Their critics may complain that the state’s Democrats don’t have a coherent policy platform, but nobody can say that the party leaders can’t add. Nonetheless, Democratic candidates will have to discuss those big issues that Republicans are focusing on – corruption and ethics, property tax relief, and asset monetization. What will they say? Well, those Democrats in competitive districts will have the party’s blessing to call for a ban on pay to play and end to dual office-holding for all. All Democrats will boast about the big increase in property relief and how voting for the constitutional dedication of the second half-cent of last year’s sales tax hike to property tax relief will assure big checks in the future.

That leaves “asset monetization.” The Governor will apparently unveil his plan sometimes after the election due to pressures from Democratic legislators to try to keep the controversial issue out of the campaigns. Some Democratic incumbents and candidates have already gone on record stating that they would not support a sale or lease of the tolls roads to a private company. Corzine has already said that he will not propose either. So, Democrats should come clean about what they think about what the Governor will likely propose, i.e., a public benefits corporation to borrow money against the toll revenues. Without an asset monetization plan in place, it’s hard to imagine that state government will have any funds anytime soon to pay for new programs that Democrats are telling their constituents they can look forward to some day.

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 for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and is on the editorial advisory board of CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.

PRESSING PROBLEMS AND PREDICTABLE CAMPAIGNS