Over 100 public officials in New Jersey have been successfully prosecuted in the last six years. A large majority of residents believe the state is headed in the wrong direction. An even large number disapprove of the job that the Democratic-controlled state legislature is doing. A once popular Governor who seemed to have so much potential for cleaning up state government's finances and its shadier political practices now watches as his ratings wane. And, four Democratic legislators – two senators and two assemblymen – face corruption chargesand will not seek reelection while a fifth will not run again because he is the target of a federal investigation.
All of this would certainly seem to suggest that the 2007 should be a good election year for the state's Republicans. After all, midterms aretypically a referendum on the sitting governor or theparty in power.This year citizens will presumablyask themselves to what extent Jon Corzinehasmade progress on his major campaign promises and whether he and the Democrats in the legislature are helping to improve the quality of life in the Garden State. Anyone who has paid any attention to NewJersey politics wouldprobably admit that they expected more action on fiscal integrity, permanent property tax reform, and ethics reform from a financial wizard and political outsider like Corzine.
On these terms, Democratsshould be worried about losing seats in the legislature on November 6th. However, the Democratsactually expects to win more seats and increase theircurrent50-30 advantage in the general assembly and 22-18 majority in the senate.Safe Democratic districts, and their are scores, willremain inthe party'shands. Huge campaigning funding advantages, massiveget-out-the-vote efforts, and some attractive local candidates may well enable the Democrats to expand their majorities in each chamber. But what about the party's lack of progress on key policy issues and the matter ofcorruption? Shouldn't both factors hurt theDemocrats at the polls?
How New Jerseyans deal with the corruption issueis complicated. While most of politicians prosecuted in the last six years have been Democrats, citizens heredo not seem to attribute corruption to members of one party. Nor are they readily willing to switchparties over a political scandal, especially if switching parties meanssupporting candidates with whom they may disagree on major fiscal and social issues.
This helps explain whyin the 2003 midterm, when serious ethical and legal questions were being raised about then Governor Jim McGreevey, the Democrats gained seats in the legislature. And, why Doug Forrester, the GOP's gubernatorial candidate in 2005 against Corzine, saw his campaign flounder when he focused on ethics issues and corruption.More voters wondered about what types of programs a Governor Forrester would cut and, in any event, did not regard the super-rich Corzine as susceptible to corruption.
Which brings us to this year's races and what the Republicans can do to help their prospects for picking up some seats and maybe winning control – outright or shared – of the state senate. While the corruption issue will not by itself enable GOP candidates to carry the day, Republicans are wise to connect the headline grabbing issue with high taxes,wasteful spending and failed programs supported by their opponents.
But corruption does not explain why the state's debt is so large,state government'senormous obligations topublic worker pension and health care funds, orthe need fora permanent source of funding for transportation.Nor will eradicating corruption, as important a goal as that is, enable state government to pursue other popular, but expensive policy goals like preserving open space, expanding the public higher education system, and providing more units of affordable housing available.Toshowvoters that they are prepared to lead the state, to deal with its fiscal problems, andhelp improve the quality of life here,Republicans need a positive agenda thatlists some specificplans.
On Wednesday, GOP leadersunveiled a platform for the legislative campaigns that addresses the corruption issue andpurports toput the state on the right path by giving more power to the people. State GOP chair Tom Wilson, Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance, and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce presented "Choice for Change" which they described as a multi-pronged reform and empowerment agenda that will help heal a broken government that is unresponsive to the public. This platform, we are told, is consistent with core Republican principles like tax relief, fiscal responsibility and clean government.
The key points of the Republican'sagenda are: instituting initiative and referendum, which would require a constitutional amendment, so that citizens can directly change laws; cutting waste by $1 billion and asking citizens if they want to use this money for property tax relief; opposing any effort to raise taxes; asking citizens if they want to cap state spending;passing comprehensive campaign finance and ethics reform; asking voters if a two-thirds majority should be required in the legislature for taxes to be hiked; letting citizens decide if voters should approve all future state debt; letting people vote on a new school funding formula; and, making it easier to recall elected officials.
It is hard to disagree with proposals that bring government closer to the people and grant citizens various powers. But the Republicanreforms are chock full of mischief and inadvertently represent an admission by the GOP leadership that their party doesn't havesolutions to the big problems facing the state orideas about howto make progress on goals desired by many citizens. Take initiative and referendum. What would prevent a well-funded campaignto hike income tax rates on the wealthyto provide funds for more school aid or propertytax relief, even if such a policydramatically hurt the state's business climate? Are Republicans open to that possibility?
What happens if the court orders New Jersey to make good on its obligations to public worker pensions funds? WouldRepublicans support taxhikes for this or, due to their principled anti-tax position, instead require massive cuts in government spending and state aid, possibly underminingthe quality of life here? Is adhering to aprecept like capping state spending a good thing if it prevents the state from spending more on homeland security, health care for theuninsured, or open space preservation? What about requiringa two-thirds majority in the legislature for tax hikes? Heck, it's hardenough to get a majority in this taxophobic state. How againdo we plan to pay for road and bridge upkeep if not through, say, a gas tax hike?
Then there's the proposal to let the people vote on a new school funding formula. Most New Jerseyans live in the suburbs.If suburbanites, including residents of well-heeled communities, decide to channel more state aid their way and give much less to the Abbott districts, won't the state Supreme Court step inand stop it?You can count on that.The only way a plebiscite ona schoolfunding formula works is ifa constitutional amendment changing the "thorough and efficient system of education" clause is put on the ballot.You have to wonder why the GOP leaders aren't recommending that.
Raising citizens' expectations by presenting divisive, unworkable proposals as solutions to complex policy problems is demagoguery. New Jersey's Republicans, especiallypeople like Lance, DeCroce and Wilson, are better than that. They are right to say that the Democrats in power have been evasiveand duplicitous and have lacked the courage to come clean with citizens about the state's problems and what they plan to do about them. Butrealistically, citizens who are busy making a living and tending to personal and family responsibilities do not have much time to participate in the formulation of solution to complex policy problems.Political leaderscan at the very least help the process along by developing and laying out some specific policy alternatives.To attract more voters this November, Republicanlegislative candidates would be well advised to providethese alternatives rather than say to citizens, "Here, you do it."
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, "OnPolitics," for NEW JERSEY LAWYERand is a member of the editorial advisory board of CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.