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1-15-06 The Record 2 Sunday Articles anticipating top issues confronting the Corzine administration
'Inaugural Uncertainties' 'Reform could Spoil the Party'

THE RECORD 1-15-06

 

Sunday, January 15, 2006

‘Inaugural uncertainties’

 

Jon Corzine will take over this week from a wildly popular governor only to face a state where residents, weary of rising taxes and corrupt politicians, aren't so sure he's going to be able to change things.

New Jersey residents are looking to Corzine, who becomes governor Tuesday, to tackle rising property taxes, cut corruption and slash state spending.

But their confidence in his ability to do those things and make life better for people living here are open questions, according to The Record Poll.

Less than half of the people surveyed - 44 percent - said they expected life to get better under Governor Corzine. Thirty-two percent of the 1,000 adults questioned by telephone last week said they figured it will get worse. And one quarter of the people aren't sure what is going to happen.

When it comes to the top issues on people's minds - property taxes, public corruption and state spending - residents are not so sure Corzine is going to make a difference.

Corzine says he's not surprised by these results, given regular headlines that feature corrupt politicians and the annual increases in state and local taxes.

The governor-elect said leery residents - those who voted in November and those who shied away from the polls - deserve action, not political pandering.

"I think this is show-me time," Corzine said in an interview at his transition office.

People are tired of hearing politicians promise reform, then work to line their pockets, Corzine said.

"This is not about words," Corzine explained. "People assess over some period of time whether this administration, whether I as their governor am serious about pushing back against corruption, serious about property tax relief and reform."

The man Corzine is replacing, Richard Codey, leaves office with an approval rating of 63 percent. Codey is credited even by Republicans with restoring integrity to the office of governor after taking over from James E. McGreevey who resigned amid scandal.

By way of comparison, Corzine's marks as U.S. senator were 57 percent favorable.

The new governor faces formidable economic challenges. The next state budget is predicted to come up at least $5 billion short, and that's not counting the increases in property-tax rebates Corzine promised during the election.

The state needs to find over $1 billion to pay for improvements to roads, bridges and the public-transportation system or face losing $8 billion in federal funds.

Public schools need more money. A $9 billion cache for building schools required under a state Supreme Court ruling is gone and few schools have been built.

And people aren't willing to trust the government with their money.

When asked who is trusted more with tax dollars - the governor, county officials or local mayor - more than a third of the people polled said they don't trust any of them.

People are split over how confident they are about Corzine's ability to stand up to party bosses and political insiders - 43 percent who are confident to 45 percent who are not. On improving ethics in government, 48 percent say they are not confident Corzine will make a change, compared with 46 percent who say they are.

Only on controlling state spending were respondents more favorable in their assessment of Corzine's abilities, and then only slightly.

Given how much officials have done in recent years to better themselves while raising taxes, Corzine says he is not surprised that many residents have written him and other politicians off.

"It's not just a New Jersey problem. It's a broad-based problem with government and for good reason," he said. "People are frustrated. When they see their politicians taking advantage of the system, it really, really hurts their reputation."

With a disappointed public, Corzine admitted that he might not have the broad public support for massive changes.

"But it also gives you a great opportunity," Corzine said.

The solution is "being straightforward, straight talking and willing to engage the public," he said. "Describing the problem is the easy part. But solving it is a lot harder."

The public, however, is willing to give Corzine some help.

By a margin of eight percentage points, people said they would be willing to collect a smaller property-tax rebate check if the money went to pay for local schools and governments.

But don't look for New Jerseyans to back a gas-tax increase.

Fifty-five percent rejected a 5-cent per gallon increase to help pay for crumbling roads and bridges, while only 37 percent would agree to an increase.

Corzine's reform call could spoil his party

 


Sunday, January 15, 2006


 

Governor-elect Jon Corzine expects to stress his commitment to reform when he takes office Tuesday, foreshadowing what promises to be a defining clash with some of his fellow Democrats.

"I believe that we need to change the public's view of what it is that we're doing in government," Corzine said when asked to preview his inaugural speech. "It is not to serve ourselves, but to serve the public."

As Corzine noted, he has expressed this sentiment before - starting nearly a year ago, when he promised a series of campaign-finance and ethics reforms at the beginning of a campaign to replace the first New Jersey governor to resign in scandal.

The difference now is that, instead of a Republican candidate making similar promises, Corzine faces powerful members of the Legislature and his own party who have resisted new campaign-finance and ethics laws.

Corzine said he hopes to move quickly on some ethics measures, such as the creation of an independent, elected state comptroller to monitor state finances. And he said he would be willing to use unilateral executive orders to accomplish reforms where he meets resistance from the Legislature.

"I would certainly hope that we would hit the ground running on these initiatives, and we intend to," Corzine said in an interview last week. He added, "There will be times that I think you have to use the executive order to shake up the process, to get it moving. I mean, there are places where even discussions of executive orders actually might move ... the process."

The governor-elect added that he is prepared to weather the inevitable controversy. He alluded to another self-sufficient CEO-turned-politician, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who suffered dismal approval ratings while pushing through a contentious agenda, but ultimately recovered to win reelection easily last year.

"I fully expect that if you really address the tough issues - I don't expect my popularity rating to be at the top," Corzine said. "I didn't run for public office to not try to do something and make a difference."

Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews of Camden County said last week that ethics reform should and would be the "first major test" of the Corzine administration. He noted that his fellow Democrats would not be unanimous on the subject.

"I think it's important that members of the governor-elect's own party be willing to say that they support these changes, because there are some in the governor-elect's own party who will resist these changes," Andrews said in a speech proclaiming his support for the reforms.

Andrews' speech offered a daunting reminder of all that Corzine had promised: a comprehensive ban on political contributions by government contractors (known as "pay-to-play"), similar restrictions on developers, more competitive bidding on contracts, expanded public financing, and the elected comptroller.

2 potential rivals

Corzine's most ambitious reform proposals are widely expected to find formidable opposition from Democrats, who make up the majority in the Legislature. The leaders of the two legislative houses are powerful men in their own right with decades of experience in state politics.

One is the outgoing governor, Richard J. Codey, who will return full time to the state Senate presidency after Corzine is sworn in Tuesday. Codey and Corzine have had an uneasy relationship since they were cast as potential rivals in last year's gubernatorial race. Despite high approval ratings and an obvious affinity for the job he assumed after James E. McGreevey's resignation, Codey declined to challenge Corzine for the Democratic nomination, citing the former Goldman Sachs chairman's ability to fund his own campaign.

The man who runs the lower house of the Legislature, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, is viewed as a close political ally to South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross. Some of Corzine's agenda threatens Norcross and other regional political leaders, whose power is based partly on the existing fund-raising system.

"He [Corzine] is stuck between an extremely popular governor that he forced out with his money and the premier power broker's right-hand man," a ranking Codey administration official said. "So Corzine's going to get squeezed every time."

Several political insiders said important legislative issues that were blocked or put off at the end of the last legislative session - such as stem-cell research funding - would be held hostage in the battle over reform.

"Roberts is exerting himself already," one Democratic legislator said. A Republican insider agreed, saying, "These current issues that are being delayed are going to become bigger bargaining chips in the grander game of Trenton politics."

One Democrat close to the Corzine camp predicted that Roberts would be a major impediment to reform measures, saying the new governor would have to begin with a series of initiatives that would not require legislative approval.

But Roberts downplayed any disagreements he might have with Corzine, citing recent reform measures that the Assembly Democrats have supported.

"I believe there are infinitely more areas in which we agree than areas of disagreement," Roberts said. "I think this new relationship has the capacity to work together very well, and no one should presume differently."

No 'rubber stamp'

Although Codey has taken some steps toward reform, he has repeatedly signaled that he and the rest of the Legislature will not blindly follow Corzine's political lead.

"We ... have a responsibility to be a constructive part of the process," Codey said in his State of the State address last week. But he departed from the prepared text to add, "Now, I didn't say a rubber stamp."

The two incoming legislative leaders have often been rivals. But one Democratic insider pointed out that Roberts and Codey could also work together against the new chief executive.

"Roberts and Codey could become close working partners," the Democrat said. "Don't assume that there couldn't be common ground."

Codey said in an interview last week that he and Corzine enjoy cordial relations: "I've never raised my voice to him and he's never raised his voice to me, and we've never hung up on each other. I've always liked him." But he added, "There are issues where Jon and I disagree."

Codey said he opposes Corzine's proposal for an elected comptroller and has misgivings about further efforts to revamp New Jersey's campaign finance system. He said some restrictions could prevent well-intentioned people with modest financial resources from entering public life, favoring more wealthy, self-funding candidates like Corzine.

"The more you limit the average person's ability to raise money, the more you put them at a disadvantage in relation to persons of wealth," Codey said.

The budget squeeze

Reform, of course, is just one of many thorny matters facing the incoming governor. Besides promising to change a system that got many of the Legislature's members where they are, Corzine faces state budget shortfalls that will limit his ability to deal with lawmakers. Instead of a store of discretionary funds to spend on districts represented by cooperative lawmakers, Corzine faces the prospect of cutting staff and programs to balance the budget and meet other lingering fiscal obligations.

"It actually would be virtually impossible to exaggerate the magnitude of the state's fiscal problem," said Orin Kramer, a fund-raiser and investment banker who is close to Corzine. "And the governor-elect means what he's said about campaign-finance reform. And that intrinsically creates a very tough agenda."

E-mail: gohlke@northjersey.com

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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