By Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes III
As I listened to Gov. Christie present an outline of his budget this year, I began to realize that the problems facing our state cannot be solved in a traditional linear approach.
This means that we cannot simply go from point A to point B to get to point C, as Governor Christie would have us believe. The problems that we face are complex. Good, hardworking people will get hurt if we refuse to examine the entirety of the problem.
We are facing what Professors Horst Rittell and Melvin Webber of the University of California-Berkeley, call wicked problems. In short, wicked problems are those that evolve. In addition, every problem is unique. Every problem is the cause of another problem and each problem can be explained in numerous ways. The solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, not better or worse, and there are no ways to test the solutions. The State of New Jersey is living proof of the impact of wicked problems.
Our pension systems have a deficit hovering at $54 billion, while the current liability on health care for current and retired public employees is a staggering $67 billion. These problems are not the fault of rank and file employees. It was caused by not knowing what the future holds. When these decisions were made, former governors and legislative leaders believed investments would bring over an 8 percent return annually, but in reality a volatile Wall Street brought only a meager return over the past decade. We are paying for this mistake.
The cuts to education, municipal aid and other programs to our most vulnerable residents have slowly weakened the foundation of our state. Some believed that drastic cuts would solve our problems. In reality, the cuts have caused more problems.
We now have more children attending overcrowded schools. School districts have also eliminated many course offerings and programs. We are witnessing our municipalities struggle with cuts in aid and property tax caps, while attempting to maintain services. Gov. Christie has imposed a plan that will cause the sick and elderly to have fewer Medicaid benefits. Every solution is causing yet another problem.
Although we have no choice but to limit spending, laying off even more public employees creates two more problems. Firstly, we have higher unemployment rates, which will consequently require even more government services in the form of unemployment insurance benefits, charity health care and other safety net programs. Secondly, this just further weakens our state and will make recovery longer and more difficult.
To solve these problems, we need to consider multiple perspectives from all stakeholders including taxpayers, uniform services, teachers, local officials and state employees. It seems that every year, the budget process becomes more adversarial. This year was by far the worst in recent memory. The governor has pitted groups against each other as part of his rhetoric, a tactic which does nothing to solve our problems.
There is no single solution to wicked problems – neither Governor Christie nor the Legislature has all the answers. The only reasonable solution is that we must work together to ensure that our fellow residents in New Jersey are not left behind.
Assemblyman Barnes is a Democrat who represents the 18th Legislative District in Middlesex County.