For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for New Jersey’s middle class

By Sen. Shirley Turner

Recently, the Federal Reserve offered us a lesson in how to respond to economic crisis. By keeping interest rates low until mid-2013, our otherwise volatile economic future will have at least one aspect of predictability. A future that provides knowledge of what to expect when making investment and job creation decisions is a critical element for getting our economic house in order.

The contrast between the Fed’s actions and recent events in New Jersey’s Statehouse is striking.

The Fed understands that the most important issue facing America today is our economy and the availability of jobs that pay a living wage.

Ask the one in ten New Jerseyans (double for blacks and Latinos) who want jobs but can’t find them what government should be doing. The answer is: fixing the economy. Small business owners would agree. Only the big corporations benefitting from this economic crisis would disagree; they took almost a billion dollars in state tax incentives and promised to create jobs, but failed to deliver.

New Jersey’s economy and jobs have taken a back seat to an exercise in political dogma. Teachers, police, firefighters, public servants and the working poor have been demonized and scapegoated.

When we should have been talking about creating and preserving jobs, we weren’t. We were talking about taking away collective bargaining rights for government employees and slashing millions of dollars in government services.

Certainly there is no doubt that state pension and health benefits reform was needed, but did it create any jobs or reduce the tax burden on low- and middle-income earners? In fact, some of the actions taken, such as privatizing NJN, have destroyed jobs and put more people who want to work onto the unemployment rolls.

There is frustration, fear, and anger felt by my constituents, many of whom are rank and file members of public employee unions. They negotiated for their compensation, just as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies do, by using the value of their labor and abilities to secure the best possible compensation packages for themselves.

Government has refused to recognize the validity of that contract by unilaterally stripping their collective bargaining rights at the same time they extend a whopping tax break to our wealthiest citizens.

Perhaps some would argue that the unfairness of not sharing the sacrifice might be excused if a millionaire tax cut did what it promised to do. We were told that the tax windfall for the super-rich would spur development and job creation. It hasn’t.

Allowing for seasonal fluctuations, key economists have characterized the net change in the number of jobs since the millionaire windfall as “flat.” That windfall did basically two things: it made the rich richer and everyone else poorer.

And now, as if intentionally trying to further weaken New Jersey’s economy and job market, the Port Authority of NY/NJ has announced outrageous toll increases to allow exorbitantly paid tunnel and bridge trolls to further prey on the millions of commuters and truckers who must use bridges, tunnels, airports and ports every day to make a living.

The Port Authority’s proposal hikes tolls by 50 percent and more. The high increases for truckers will be passed onto consumers, creating a recipe for disaster that shrinks the job market and destroys the economy for New Jersey by raising prices for consumer goods like food and clothing.

Our governor expressed surprise about the Port Authority’s actions in a bit of political theatre that is fooling no one. If he is serious about fixing our economy and creating jobs, he should reject the proposal and freeze tolls for a period at least equal to that set for interest rates by the Fed.

He should force the Port Authority to look internally first, slashing the lavish perks and bloated salaries of executives. He should also prune the deadwood that failed to cut operating costs in anticipation of the easily foreseen shortfall in traffic-based revenue.

We know that Port Authority revenues are off due to the recession; these executives should have seen that train when it was way down the tracks and should have responded by scaling back operating costs.

The NY Comptroller has already cited the Port Authority’s lack of oversight of service contract renewals as the cause for $22 million in overspending over several years. Taking the Comptroller’s recommendations into account would be another opportunity to save millions as opposed to burdening commuters with a hefty tax.

If the Fed can find a way to freeze the cost it charges to obtain money in this time of crisis, then the Port Authority should do the same for its operations.

It’s very hard not to be cynical and angry. The poor and middle class are making the entire sacrifice. Public employees have been stripped of their ability to collectively bargain for their health care and pension benefits.

Working poor families have been pushed further into poverty. New Jersey has created a greater divide between the privileges of the wealthy and the right of working families of any economic class to earn a livable wage and to spend their retirement years with security and dignity.



For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for New Jersey’s middle class