Torricelli on tough choices

The remarkable thing about the public policy priorities facing New Jersey is the generalconsensus regarding which issues should be priorities on the agenda. Nobody seems to argue about the need to fulfill our moral and legal responsibilityto rebuild aging schools in less affluent areas. The financial ruin of the Schools Construction Corporation is the worst failing of this generation of New Jersey political leadership but the need to resolve the problem crosses all partisan and ideological lines.

The recognition that these next few years represent our last chance to save open space and preserve some quality life for our citizensis also understood. Governor Whitman began a serious effort to preserve farmland and virgin forests andevery Governor since has taken the challenge. The current slump in housing has presented an enormous opportunity. The price and availability of threatened rural land will never be better. We either buy now or in a few years we'll have a choice between higher prices or border to border pavement.

Nobody seems to argue over the state of our state universities either. Years of neglect have left dormitories with leaky roofs and classrooms in disrepair. These institutions are the economic engine of our economy buthave beenbadly neglected. We ignore them at our peril as the cost of deferred maintenance rises in construction and human capital costs.

Finally, there's the once divisive issue of mass transit. People used to argue about the need for expanding the rail network and building intercity light rail systems. That was before $80 per barrel oil, two hour commutes and the enormous success of the River Line and the Hudson Bergen Light Rail. Without new mass transit this state will begin to hit an economic ceiling. Quality of life will decline and the best employers will never recruit workers. Those who remain will spend hours burning expensive gas instead of productive time at work or rewarding time withfamily.

If these are the thingsupon which we agree, where do we disagree?That's easy.How do we pay for this multi-billion dollar agenda?

Raising taxes in New Jersey isn't an option. Every dollar in new taxes drives wealthy residents out of state and lowers revenues. More debt isn't an option becausethe current debt service is already consuming more than we can afford. This is where the argument for monitizing state assets begins .

Most people don't like the idea of selling the Turnpike, renting the Atlantic City Expressway or leasing the State Lottery. In a perfect world I wouldn't like it either but where else are we going?

I'm against selling valuable state assets unless the alternative is ending the open space program, continuing to ignore deteriorating university buildings, and leavingurban school repair unfinished. I'd like to have the Statemaintain the Lottery forever but not if it means that the State can't match federal grants for new mass transit projects.

It's about choices. None of themis easy but they're remarkably clear.

Torricelli on tough choices