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11-20-05 Sunday Star Ledger 'Corzine's risky promise to taxpayers
Includes mention of Corzine's position to hold both a special session and constitutional convention,

Corzine's risky promise to taxpayers

Legislative session may bring out all kinds of interests
Sunday, November 20, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

On the morning after Election Day, Gov.-elect Jon Corzine greeted commuters at Metropark in the Iselin section of Woodbridge and vowed to tackle New Jersey's soaring property taxes by calling lawmakers to Trenton for a special session of the Legislature early next year.

But those who know how these things work say Corzine shouldn't expect an idealistic meeting where people work hand-in-hand for a better New Jersey.

Legislative leaders and veterans of past special sessions say they are usually controversial affairs with arm-twisting lobbyists, an inflamed public and petrified lawmakers.

"This will challenge us to look at the political culture of the state," said Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny (D-Hudson). "This will be daunting, but the time has come to accept the challenge."

Kenny said he expects a special session on property taxes would bring out all the special interests -- most notably those who draw paychecks from property taxes.

"We would be dealing with very powerful unions, be they education, police and fire or municipal workers," he said. "The property tax issue touches every type of life in New Jersey. Anybody who is involved in the political realm of New Jersey will be involved."

The state constitution gives governors the power to call a special legislative session "whenever in his opinion the public interest should require."

A governor has no authority to force lawmakers to actually convene, but "the political reality is they have to come in," said Kathy Crotti, director of the Senate Democratic staff.

Crotti was a Senate aide the last time the Legislature held a full-blown special session -- in 1976, when the income tax was enacted after the state Supreme Court declared New Jersey's system of funding education was unconstitutional and closed public schools.

Lawmakers convened on June 30 and for nine days debated in stifling hot Assembly and Senate chambers. They finally agreed on an income tax bill following a voting session that lasted 48 hours.

"The air was supercharged," said former Gov. Brendan Byrne, who called lawmakers into session. "There was an overriding concern with legislators that just voting for a tax was a death knell."

Former Assemblyman Albert Burstein (D-Bergen), who co-sponsored the tax bill, said some lawmakers froze with fear. He saw them tremble and have trouble breathing. Some could not move the voting switch on their desk.

"The anti-tax people were virulent in their opposition," he said. "A lot of it was generated by local radio stations that day after day made pitches against the income tax. Newspapers were anti-tax, constituents were anti-tax. If you listen to the loudest voices, you'll be sure to never make it through."

Byrne said only one lawmaker who voted for his income tax was defeated in the next election. But later governors avoided special sessions; Jim Florio called one in 1990, but only so he could deliver a speech on auto insurance reform.

Under Corzine's special session plan, lawmakers would be spared a final decision. He wants them to come up with suggestions to be passed to a constitutional convention. Voters would then have the last say.

"We have a process in place to look at all these key issues, and we will be gathering information and putting together options," said spokeswoman Ivette Mendez.

But even a first step poses political risks for lawmakers who long ignored the problem because the alternatives could prompt anger.

Raising other taxes isn't popular. Forcing towns or schools to combine or share services hits at New Jersey's long-standing tradition of home rule. And cutting local costs could rile powerful unions.

"There are over 1,000 local governments between school boards and municipalities," Kenny said. "We have 21 counties and innumerable autonomous agencies and authorities, all of whom spend money and a fierce culture of political home rule prevails as a result of the state's density and diversity."

Acting Gov. Richard Codey, who will retain his spot as Senate president after Corzine takes office, says nothing should be considered unless local spending is reviewed.

"Most people say the only fair way to do it is through an income tax," said Codey, one of three sitting lawmakers who took part in 1976's special session. "That's fine, but there would be a dramatic increase in taxes for a huge amount of New Jerseyans, and they are not going to be happy and will seek retribution."

Union leaders say they'll be in on the action at a special session.

"I would certainly want to make sure the state meets its obligation to meet pensions, and fund health coverage," said Joyce Powell, president of the 192,000-member New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union.

"We do not think the problem is our wages and benefits," said Alan Kaufman, legislative political coordinator for the Communications Workers of America, which represents 15,000 local and 35,000 state government employees.

William G. Dressel, director of the state League of Municipalities, said a special session is needed -- but it won't be easy.

"The problem is that after the governor removes his hand from the Bible in mid-January and reality sets in on the hard choices that have to be made, various groups are going to be infuriated one way or another on whatever proposal is advanced," he said.

Tom Hester covers state government. He may be reached at thester@starledger.com or (609) 292-0557.

Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608