They were 120 strong and some of the strongest secondary school students in the Garden State.This summer's participants in the Junior Statesman of AmericaNew JerseySymposium on Leadership and Politicsprogram crammed into Room 4 of the State House Annex, also know as the senate budget hearing room. Once again I had the pleasure to kick off this four day event which would feature presentations by congressmen, state legislators and commissioners, political activists and advocates, and reporters.
These students may be young, but they're make for a tough audience.They combine a generic American idealism about what the political system should be like with the critical thinking skills they learn in school and the skepticism about politics that dominates the media. What most of these teenagersdon't have is a reflexive attachment to a political party or ideology. Oh,they have values, priority policy goals, and political favorites, sure. But from I could tell,no blind loyalties.
After all, having the latterwould seem todeny the importance of empirical analysisand thepossibility that the opposition contribute to understanding issues, much less that they should be respected as fellow citizens in a democracy. These young people hunger for information, respect evidence,revel indiscussing their findings and debating what they mean, andwant toobtaintheright answers, notthe right Democratic or Republican ones. On their terms,knee-jerk partisanship is anti-intellectualandone reason why faith in government, along with the registration roles in the two major political parties, have declined so much.
So what does one say to these kids? Well, it may be appropriate for high ranking public officialsto talk"at" them, since it's not every day that a high schooler gets to hear first hand what an experienced politicianwith some real power has to say.I can't make that claim on an audience. However,I do know that it's the active, engaged students who learn- the ones whoare presented with situations and problems and prodded to think about the former and to try to solve the latter.Yes, and who feel comfortable asking their own questions and challenging, politely so, the views of others, be they their fellow students, teachers or political leaders.
As such, I decided to start my own 90-minute presentation with a question. Not the kind you'd be asked on the SAT's ora quiz show, but one that evokes responses that reflect knowledge and opinion, the very stuff that often starts a good political discussion. I asked the group, "When you thinkof New Jersey politics, what comes to mind?" If you guessed that the first respondent said "political corruption," you win! Then came the delude – gang violence andcrumbling bridges and roads, high housing costs, pollution, congestion, the lack of open space,the need for good jobs, illegal immigration, better public schools, health insurance for all, racial tension, and high property taxes.
No onementioned high auto insurance costs or high college tuition, so I did to a room full of nods. However,two students surprised me by citinggovernment workers pensions and healthbenefits as state-wide concerns.I also added the state debt to the list.You may be surprised how many New Jerseyans don't know the state budget must be balanced or, if they do, how the state can have a debt.With this impressive list of issues in hand, I askedthe students two other questions. How didyou hear about all these issues? And, is it fair to call each of these issues a "crisis?"
Nowasone of the program directors put it, these high achieverscome as close to being "political insiders" as teenagers can andhave many sources of information. They rattled off newspapers, television, radio, the Internet in general and this web-site in particular, campaign ads and party newsletters. No doubt their social studies teachers and their parents have also helped them learn about state politics.I deadpannedthat I heard about theseissuesfrom Governor Jon Corzine. He has publiclydiscussedall the issues on our list. And, to cut to the chase, the Governor seems to regardeach of them as a "crisis." Or, at least a high prioritymatter thatrequires government attention to improve some aspectof the quality of life in the Garden State.
Corzine iscertainly not alone in talking about the crises that beset the state. It's a legislative election year, so it should not besurprise that a surprise that lots of candidatesaredoingthe same thing totry to capture the attention and support of voters. This is tricky business for the state's Democrats who, after all, are theparty in power and who voters would expect to beboasting about accomplishments rather than bemoaning problems. Butby discussing problems, Democratic legislative candidatesare admitting that they can't ignore the obviousand need to reconnect with important constituent groups whowant some reassurance that their needs are understood and taken seriously, even if they have not been acted on yet. Speaking of the obvious, Republicans can cite these crises as examples oftheDemocrats' failure to keep their own promises andhelp their own supporters, much less do anything for the rest of the state's residents.
However, one thing about these crisesthat Democrats and Republicans alike agree on is that addressingthem will cost a fortune. And, as Governor has told New Jerseyans, the state is broke. So, I asked the "junior statesmen and stateswomen" from New Jersey, what does this tell us we should do as thoughtful citizens when candidates for the state senate andgeneral assembly from either partypromise thatthey will deal with one or more of these crises – high tuition, property taxes, health care, whatever – in the next legislature? You got it, and so did the students.Ask those candidateshow they plan to pay for the initiatives they are recommending and insist that they give a straight answer.
What are those answers likely to be? Republicansare still harping about "waste, fraud and abuse." No one can argue against the need to prevent taxpayer dollars from being squandered. But the really big bucksare spenton state aid and in school districtsand municipalities. Many Republicans say theywant to take money from the Abbott districts and use it for state aid to suburban districts or for direct propertytax relief. But to do this, a constitutional amendmentis required.Wonder if any GOP candidates will highlight that fact in their campaign ads and literature?
How do the Democratic legislative candidates plan toget moneyto deal with the state's many problems? Well, they hope that the new comptroller find lots of wasteful spending and thatthose property tax relief measures – remember the new caps onmunicipal, school and county spending, incentives to consolidate and regionalize – kick in.And, hope that thebig investment in stem cell research and biotechnology will result in economic growth, thousands of good paying jobs, and more tax revenues for state and local governments.
Willallof the above provide enough revenue, and soon enough, for the state to balance its budget and begin working on its various crises? No. Not according to Governor Corzine, anyway.That's why he's developing an asset monetization plan, a concept as mysterious to these honor students as it is to the general public.But in fairness to asset monetization, it took no more than five minutesto explain the basic principles of the plan. Every newspaper in the statehaspublished a clear, concise explanation of what a plan would entail. Why can't or doesn't Governor Corzine justletNew Jerseyans know what he has in mind?A few students cited the unpopularity of the idea. Onementioned that he read that the Governor may be waiting until after the election to announce a plan to avoid having his party's candidateshave to go on record about his proposal.
But after hearing about the numbers – howmonetizing the toll roads would probablyenable cutting the state debt in half and free up $1.5 billion in annual debt service payments – and thinking about that long list of issues the group generated, one student made a particularlyastute observation. Asset monetization will simply not free up enough money for the state to do very much about all of its manyproblems. What do you call that?, I asked.He smiled and said, "A realcrisis." Yes, and one that needs some senior statesman in theStateHouse to step up and startthinking and acting like the junior statesmen and stateswomenwho were visiting the Capitol this week.
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 LAWYERand is on the editorial advisory board of CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.