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10-10-07 Key Questions for Legislative Candidates
KEY QUESTIONS FOR LEGISLATIVE CANDIDATES By David Rebovich - Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics. He also writes a regular column, "On Politics," for NEW JERSEY LAWYER.

"Jon Corzine, the guy with all that money, turned out to be the Governor who likes to pass the buck, when it comes to dealing with important policy issues, that is. A new school funding formula, comprehensive ethics reform, and asset monetization, arguably the three top issues New Jersey, will all be debated and presumably addressed in the next legislative session that begins in January 2008. These issues apparently are too controversial to talk about during the current campaign season, according to the Governor and the legislative leaders in his own party. How foolish for anyone to think that this is precisely the time when candidates should discuss high priority, challenging issues and present policy proposals that deal with them..."

KEY QUESTIONS FOR LEGISLATIVE CANDIDATES

By David Rebovich - October 10, 2007 - 6:39am

Tags: Richard Codey, Joseph Roberts, Jon Corzine,

Jon Corzine, the guy with all that money, turned out to be the Governor who likes to pass the buck, when it comes to dealing with important policy issues, that is. A new school funding formula, comprehensive ethics reform, and asset monetization, arguably the three top issues New Jersey, will all be debated and presumably addressed in the next legislative session that begins in January 2008.

These issues apparently are too controversial to talk about during the current campaign season, according to the Governor and the legislative leaders in his own party. How foolish for anyone to think that this is precisely the time when candidates should discuss high priority, challenging issues and present policy proposals that deal with them. However, conventional political wisdom recommends that candidates, especially those in safe districts or in the majority party, instead campaign on platitudes, broad promises and criticisms of the opposition.

This is what may be happening in several legislative districts across the state, since most are drawn to be safe. But in the competitive and possibly competitive districts - like the 1st, 2nd, 8th, 12th, 14th and 39th - most of the candidates in both parties are not shying away from discussing the controversial issues. And interestingly, many of these candidates agree, at least in general terms, about what needs to be done about these issues.

Democrats and Republicans alike believe that New Jersey needs a new state school funding formula that provides more aid to most suburban and rural districts, especially those that are experiencing increases in enrollments. Several candidates in competitive districts are calling for ethics reform, especially for an end to dual officeholding for current legislators. And, candidates in both parties are nearly unanimous in their refusal to support any asset monetization plan that entails the sale or lease of the toll roads to a private company.

According to the polls, these positions reflect majority sentiment in the state and, no doubt, in the competitive districts. Thus, residents in these districts may feel that when in comes to getting their views on asset monetization, ethics reform, and school funding represented in the next legislature, they can't go wrong. However, even though candidates in competitive districts and in some others, especially Republican ones, are taking some strong stances on key issues, they do need to be asked some follow-up questions about these issues that few have addressed this campaign season.

On ethics reform, would Democratic legislators be willing to form a bipartisan coalition to work with Governor Corzine in pressuring the legislative leaders in both chambers - in all likelihood these will remain Senate President Richard Codey and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts - to post bill eliminating dual officeholding for current legislators, banning play to play and ending the practice of wheeling? Counting heads in the current legislature, it is clear that at least the elimination of dual officeholding for current legislators could have passed both chambers if the bill was posted.

But Codey and Roberts deferred to current dual officeholders - there are 16 of them - and kept them out of the new legislation. Should 16 legislators out of 120 be able to dictate the substance of legislation? Voters should want to know if the self-stated ethics reformers on the ballot believe in reform so strongly that they will work in a bipartisan fashion and stand up to leaders who put the interests of particular politicians ahead of that of the general public.

On the new school funding formula, there is basic question to ask the candidates. Advocates of financially stressed suburban and rural districts claim that their schools can use about a billion dollars more in state aid. Where is this money going to come from? Republicans have a plan to eradicate waste, fraud and abuse from government to free up funds for good purposes, including property tax relief. But the bulk of the savings that Republicans claim they can achieve comes form cutting aid to Abbott School Districts. GOP candidates need to explain where they will find the money if the State Supreme Court does not authorize big cuts in funding to the Abbott districts. Democratic candidates, who may not be interested in trying to cut Abbott funding, need to explain from where they will get a billion bucks.

Then there's asset monetization. So many candidates have been quick to denounce any plan to sell or lease the tool roads to private firms, much less foreign ones. The problem is that way back on June 28th, Governor Corzine announced his eight core principles of asset monetization, one of which is that he would not recommend any sale or lease to a private company. What the Governor is likely to recommend is the creation of a public benefits corporation that would seek to borrow billions of dollars and use tolls revenues - likely from higher toll rates - to pay back the loan. As such, the real question that legislative candidates need to answer is whether they may be interested in supporting a new government entity and under what conditions.

Any candidates that say they want to see new initiatives in expanding health coverage, increasing affordable housing units, improving facilities at state colleges and universities, and fighting crime and gang violence may deserve praise for their support of important causes. But given state government's poor fiscal condition and its serious financial obligations - e.g., to the public workers pension and health care fund, to build new schools in Abbott districts, and to pay off the $30 billion state debt - it's hard to imagine that any big new policy initiative can be made anytime soon. Candidates in both parties need to come clean about this or identify funding sources for their preferred new programs. Who says this campaign season can't be worthwhile? It can be of we ask the right questions of our candidates and they answer them.

David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics. He also writes a regular column, "On Politics," for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and is a member of the editorial advisory board of CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.

 


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