Tomorrow, April 20, 2010, the voters in 537 of New Jersey’s 588 school districts will have the opportunity to approve or disapprove proposed school budgets. Yesterday, the Star-Ledger published an op-ed written by Governor Chris Christie in which he again urged defeat of proposed school budgets in districts where the local teachers’ union did not agree to a one year pay freeze.
Obviously, there has been no polling in such school districts, and therefore, it is impossible to predict their school budget vote outcomes. Regardless of the results, however, there will most likely be a record turnout tomorrow for New Jersey school budget elections.
This increased turnout in itself will be a significant victory for Governor Chris Christie. To understand this, one must focus on what I have described in various columns as “the New Christie Paradigm,” in which cost control by local school district and municipal governing bodies, rather than state financial aid, is viewed as the primary means of property taxes control.
For decades, most New Jersey politicians and pundits believed that increasing state municipal and school aid would keep property taxes low. This approach failed. Municipalities and school districts used their additional state aid for new and expanded programs, rather than defraying the costs of existing programs. Property taxes increased substantially, as municipal and school district spending continued to skyrocket.
The New Christie Paradigm constitutes a significant departure from this failed conventional wisdom. The Governor’s message to the voters in tomorrow’s elections is clear: In view of state fiscal realities, the gravy train of continuously increasing state aid is over. In fact, decreases in such aid are now unavoidable in order to balance the state budget without state tax increases that are destructive of New Jersey’s economy
Under the New Christie Paradigm, school districts and municipalities will be forced to economize and consolidate or engage in shared services with their neighboring communities. This will eventually facilitate property tax decreases, while still maintaining high quality and cost efficient education.
Christie has continuously emphasized that school budget elections constitute the electorate’s most effective means of controlling property taxes. An unusually high turnout in tomorrow’s elections would confirm the success of this gubernatorial message, regardless of the outcome. If school budgets are rejected in districts where teachers have refused a one year pay freeze, then this would be an additional Christie victory as well.
The New Christie Paradigm has already had a significant positive impact on tomorrow’s proposed school budgets. A record low six districts have requested ballot approval to spend beyond the existing state four percent property tax cap. In four of the six cases, the requests are for the financing of either existing programs or the restoration of previously eliminated programs.
The New Christie Paradigm also includes the Governor’s proposal for a constitutional amendment mandating a 2.5 per cent “hard cap” on property tax increases. State bureaucrats would no longer have the power to grant cap waivers. Instead, the voters in local referenda would have the exclusive authority to authorize school district and/or municipal spending in excess of the cap.
It appears highly unlikely that the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate will provide the necessary three-fifths majorities on time to place the proposed 2.5 percent “hard cap” amendment on the ballot this November. There is also talk in Trenton that the Democratic legislative leadership will refuse to place it on the November, 2011 ballot as well. This would give the New Jersey GOP the opportunity to make the 2011 Assembly and Senate elections a referendum on the Governor’s 2.5 percent “hard cap” proposal.
The recently reported polls have shown a drop in the Governor’s popularity. Such poll results were expected by Governor Christie in view of his budget reduction proposals.
In fact, these polls appear to be a matter of massive indifference to Chris Christie. What matters to him are three things: 1) the passage of a state budget that does not contain tax increases detrimental to the New Jersey economy: 2) the enactment of the 2.5 percent property tax cap amendment; and 3) the understanding by the voters that primary responsibility for property tax control rests with school district and municipal governing bodies in their respective budgets. The unprecedented high level of interest in tomorrow’s school budget elections shows that the Governor has in large part already succeeded in attaining this third goal.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations. He currently serves as Public Servant in Residence at Monmouth University.