Hold Me Accountable: Corzine the Tentative Reformer

Jon Corzine has a bounce in his step this days, literally and figuratively.Recent follow-up surgery on his injured legwill correct the limp that has bothered him since his unfortunate automobile accident last Spring. And, the just-released result ofa newFDU-Public Mind Poll gives the Governor a solid 54 percent"favorable" rating as thecampaigns for this year's midterm legislativeelections aregetting into full swing. Since those elections aretypically a referendum on the performance of the sitting governor, Democrats should be pretty happy about their party's prospects on November 6th.

If New Jerseyans are holding Governor Corzine accountable for the condition of state government, most think he's doing a good job. This may strike political observers and activists as surprising, given the controversies and criticisms that have dogged the Governor the last few months. His asset monetizationidea has been panned by most citizens and by several legislators and candidates in his own party.Hisrelationship with CWA leader Carla Katz, and how this may have impacted on union negotiations,continues to be headline news. As more public officials are nabbed by crusading U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie,reporters and editorial writers continue to wonderwhen the Corzine administrationand the Attorney General will start getting tough on political corruption. And, as the Governor himself admits, state government still confronts enormous fiscal problems that willmake balancing next year's state budget and making progress on popular policy goals difficult.

Still, a majority of New Jerseyans view the Governor favorably. Part of the explanation for this is that, according to the FDU-Public Mind Poll, a whopping61 percent of likely voters say they have not heard of Carla Katz. Perhaps Corzine's rating will drop if that story is told on the campaign trail and in ads. And, if the Republican candidates hit the airwaves warning New Jerseyans about how the Governor and his Democratic colleagues plan to pass an asset monetization plan after the election and are asking citizens to be patient about ethics reform. That, too, claims Corzine, will occur after the election.

But for Corzine's popularity to be jeopardized, New Jerseyans will have to hold him to the same high standards he set for himself when running for governor and in his major speeches since being elected. He promised to be a reformer. A self-financed candidate for the U.S. Senate and forGovernor,Corzine said he wasunbought by the political bosses andwould not be beholden to them. Hepromisedfiscal integrity in state government – an annual budget that is balanced without gimmicks and that meets that state'sfinancial obligations-, long-term property tax relief, and a restoration of ethical integrity to the state's political system that is beset by corruption, cronyism, and influence-peddling.

Progress in these areas has been surprisingly slow. What is more surprising is that Corzine, who showed he could play hardball to get into office, has seemingly acquiesced to more experienced political operatives inside and outsidethe State House since being elected. New Jerseyans, as accustomed tobeingdisappointed by politicians as much as any Americans,probably thought they were getting something more or different when they elected the former Wall Street CEO as their governor.

And let's face it, Jon Corzine is no Jim McGreevey.

But after spending $100 million of his own personal fortune to win public office – $60 million for his U.S. Senate bid and about $40 million for win the governorship -, shouldn't Corzine think that he was getting more for his money?. That is, the opportunity to pursue a meaningful reform agenda and the progressive policies that he believes in and that will, if realized, make him a hero to citizens here and a respected political leaderacross the country. Instead, twenty months into his term, Corzine seems to have missed opportunities to help the stateby making more progress on his policy agenda.

When he soughtDemocraticParty'snomination for governor,Corzineshow a willingness to play hardball rather shamelessly pushed aside Acting Governor Richard Codey, who had achieved record-setting approval ratings after succeeding the discredited McGreevey. Corzine tossed around bigmoney to county party organizations andexplained howself-financing his gubernatorial campaign would save Democratic donorsmillions and enable the party to devote resourcesto legislative and county candidates.

Once elected, the new Governor showed signs of being independent of his party's establishment and of bringing his financial and management experience from Wall Street to bear on New Jersey's problems. In his Inaugural Address, he promised to bring fiscal integrity, property tax reform, and ethical integrity to the state. As the Governor and many Democratic legislative candidates like to say,their has been some progress in each of these areas.

In his first year in office Corzine boldly called for asales tax hike to help decrease the state's structural deficit – a big step toward fiscal integrity – and closed down state government for eight days to make the point. However, the end result was thatthe Governor gave intoDemocratic legislators demands to use the revenues gained from the tax hike for property tax relief and for district oriented spending with little to spare for deficit reduction.

Then he called a special session of the state legislature to address the issue of propertytax reform. After expressing high hopes for dealing with public worker compensation packages, especiallythe costs to taxpayers of health care and retirement benefits, a modest change was approved at the bargaining table. Corzine's calls for streamliningunits of government through consolidation (they are voluntary)andestablishing an elected independent Comptroller (the legislature insisted on an appointed one) also resulted in small changes.

Dual office-holding? The Governor wanted an end to it for all officeholders, including current legislators, and even threatened to not sign his second budget unlessthis reform was passed. The Democratic-controlled legislature grandfathered inexisting dual officeholders in their reform bill, and once again the Corzine gave in. The Governor also wanted to have a new school funding formula in place by now, one that would provide more state aid, and hence more propertytax relief, to growing suburban districts.

ButDemocratic legislators balked , presumably concerned about the political fallout that may result from shifting some state aid from some Abbott districts or seeking to remove some districts from the Abbott program.

Then there is the matter of asset monetization, the Governor's idea for helping the state achieve long-term financial stability and freeing up funds to pursue more of his favorite progressive policies. Many folks may have forgotten that he presented the concept of asset monetization way back on February 22 of this year in his Budget Address. Then came the accident and his recuperation. But when he signed the current budget into law on June 28th, Corzine felt compelled to clarify his ideas about asset monetization and announced his eight core principles on the issue in order to assuage citizens' and legislators' fearsthat he wanted tosell the toll roads.

Nonetheless, several Democratic legislators still issued press releases announcing their ownrefusal tosupport an asset monetization plan that entailed selling or leasing the toll roads to private businesses. This, despite the fact that the Governor had made it clear that he would not do either. The effect of this posturing byDemocratswas to give the public the impression that Corzine's asset monetization plan was unacceptable before it was even unveiled.And, Democratic legislators further put the Governor in a hole by insisting that he not reveal his plan until after the midterm elections. Now Corzine looks like he's hiding something from the public, which has raised anxiety about what will his final plan will entail.

All of this would seem to make the Governor want to scream at members of his own party. The candidate who had the intention to take on the state's political establishment and, because of his vast wealth and ability to self-finance his campaigns, had the leverage to do so has spent the better part of two years giving in to the powers that be.True, West State Street is not Wall Street, and a Governor must bargainand compromise with members of the legislative branch, something a CEO in the private sector is spared.

But Jon Corzine could have helped himself and perhaps his own agenda of fiscal integrity, property tax reform, and ethical integrity but showing the public his outrage at the recalcitrance of legislators in his party about supporting reforms that most New Jerseyans support. The Governor is New Jersey's only state government official who iselected statewide. This gives him a mandate that no other elected or appointed official or group of officials has and the ability to return to the publicto ask for their supportif he runs into obstacles.Corzine's problemdoes not so much involvea lack of accountability.Rather, it'shis inability to understand and use the powers that he possesses to achieve his goals.

David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Directorof 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.

Hold Me Accountable: Corzine the Tentative Reformer