Gov. Jon Corzine gave the final major address of his decade-long political career today, highlighting his administration’s reining in of spending while aiding disadvantaged children.
“I didn’t accomplish everything I set out to do. I didn’t execute the job flawlessly. I’m certainly not as quick with a quip as Governor Byrne. Or as polished a politician as Governor Kean,’ said Corzine in his fourth State of the State speech. “But I tried and, I hope, in some good measure, succeeded in making this state a more humane place for its children and families.”
The speech, which Corzine said he hoped would be a “midpoint, rather than the endpoint” of his gubernatorial tenure, was his last opportunity to broadcast his administration’s accomplishments. This time, however, it was not aimed at winning reelection, but at shaping how he will be remembered.
Although Corzine touted cutting state spending down $6 billion from its peak, he acknowledged that property taxes, which consistently polled as the issue voters were more concerned about in Corzine’s reelection race, remained “too damn high.” But Corzine held that only fundamental, constitution-level reform could rein them in through the consolidation of many of New Jersey’s 566 municipalities, and held that he cut their rate of growth.
“Until we reform our state’s antiquated structure for providing local government services, a home-rule system dating back to the 17th century, we’re never going to get the job done,” he said.
And while he may have not made a good enough case to convince voters to return him to office, Corzine listed his accomplishments in office – undertakings that some political observers criticized the Corzine administration for not effectively communicating to the public. He spent the most time on describing the successful, skin-of-the-teeth passage of the new school funding formula, which emphasizes need-based funding “rather than the arbitrary limits of zip codes,” and the $3.9 billion school construction program. He said he was proud that the state reformed its troubled child welfare program.
Corzine mentioned the new pay-to-play restrictions he ushered in, the end of “Christmas Tree” budget items and the gradual elimination of dual office-holding. He touted concessions from public workers and the elimination of 8,500 public jobs. And, until the national recession hit, he mentioned funding the state pension system more than in the previous 15 years.
Corzine acknowledged some shortcomings in reform. He did not end dual office-holding in one fell swoop, allowing current officials with more than one public office to be grandfathered in. He didn’t have the votes to extend pay-to-play restrictions to local government. He lamented the failure of marriage equality legislation in the state senate last week.
“I believe New Jersey should respect that principle by allowing people to marry whomever they love,” he said.
And there was, of course, the grand failure that began Corzine’s decline in the polls: the asset monetization plan, which Corzine called “the elephant in the room” and sarcastically referred to as “glorious.” But Corzine made no apologies for it.
“As you know, I tried to address New Jersey’s all consuming debt problem. My asset monetization plan was, to say the least, controversial, unpopular, and yes, unsuccessful,” said Corzine. “That said, those town hall meetings opened a painful but necessary dialogue the state must continue a dialogue about how we pay for what we want. Make no mistake: our long-term debt obligations aren’t going to disappear on their own.”
“There is no easy solution, and in my view certainly no answers without revenues,” said Corzine. “Doing nothing isn’t an option unless the choice is to deeply impair New Jersey’s future.”
Corzine congratulated Gov.-elect Chris Christie and asked that he and the legislature “come together to do what’s right, not for their party, but for the people of this great state.” But he also warned Christie from certain budget cuts that he said would provide immediate monetary relief but lead to grave problems in the future.
“For example, we can all understand that scaling back Family Care could bring budget savings in the here and now, but that might well come at a steep cost in the not-too-distant future,” said Corzine. “Under-resourcing our new education funding formula might help balance the books today, but it will limit our children tomorrow while running the risk of a return to court-mandated educational policies.”
Corzine also suggested that he will remain visible in New Jersey while managing to slip in a dig at the Statehouse press corps.
“To all of you, don’t worry – This isn’t goodbye. Give it a year, and then I’ll see you all at the 2011 Correspondents’ Club Dinner,” he said. “If there’s still a Correspondents’ Club.”