The budget proposed by Gov. Jon Corzine has produced myriad negative reactions, featuring various interests seeking to limit the impact of the cuts he has identified. Lost in the minutia of how much money will be saved by eliminating various executive departments and agencies, or how small towns will fare under this proposal is a larger question about the role of government in society. This budget present the citizenry of the state a unique opportunity to re-examine the fundamental questions regarding what we expect from government and what we are willing to pay for those services.
For too many years, New Jerseyans have been enjoying the benefits of an ever-expanding state government without paying for the actual costs of this growth. Both political parties are at fault, relying on one-time gimmicks, such as borrowing against the tobacco settlement funds or bonding to pay for operating costs, or failing to adequately fund obligations such as the unemployment fund or employee pension.
In his budget address, the governor emphasized that in his view the state has reached a crisis that needs to be addressed. However, he has failed to adequately articulate the scope of this problem and his proposals to address it.
For instance, his toll-hike plan was a public relations disaster. Rather than taking the initiative to define the agenda, which the town hall meetings should have done, the administration was caught up in a wave of discontent led by conservative arguing for a cut in state spending. When newspapers analyzed how much residents of the various counties would pay with these increases, the administration failed to counter with figures indicating how much more out of state drivers would be taxed under this plan. This type of information would allow voters to make an informed decision on the merits of the plan. Lacking this and based on the outrage that the plan generated, it is for all intents and purposes dead.
On the proposed budget cuts, we again see a lost opportunity. Rather than asking the fundamental question about what services the citizens of New Jersey are willing to pay for, we are focusing on whether or not state parks will close two hours earlier or how much small towns will be billed by the state for patrolling their streets.
For too long, the residents of New Jersey have been enjoying steak while paying for hamburger. If we want to continue to enjoy steak, i.e., expanding state service, then we had better get ready to pay for it in the form of increased taxes and fees. On the other hand, if the price of steak is too high, then we need to realistically adjust our expectations about what the state can and ought to be doing.