As NJPP celebrates its 15th anniversary, founding president Jon Shure reflects on the milestone.
By Jon Shure
Fifteen years? Has it really been that long?
When I started New Jersey Policy Perspective in 1997 I couldn’t be sure it would last one year, let alone 15.
I never doubted the need. As blue a state as New Jersey might be, debate on how to pay for investments crucial to creating jobs and building a strong economy was taking place along a very narrow, rutted path. Raising revenues was thought to be political suicide. Few in Trenton were in the mood for grown-up conversations about what things really cost and what they are worth.
NJPP’s aim was to help move public debate in a different, more productive – and, yes, more progressive – direction.
The tools would be credible research and analysis, strategic communications and reaching out to grassroots partners across the state to mobilize for change.
There were significant accomplishments along the way. Today, the sliver of New Jerseyans making over $500,000 a year pays a top state income tax rate that even a tax-cutting governor has left in place. Today, New Jersey is one of only two states where working men and women don’t have to choose between losing a paycheck or tending to newborn or ill family members. Today, 300,000 working families who earn far less than it takes to get by in New Jersey receive crucial tax credits that help them avoid sliding into poverty. Today, more scrutiny is given to tax breaks for large, profitable corporations when they don’t produce the jobs they said they would.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let me share what a personally satisfying experience NJPP was. It really did start out with just a post office box in Ewing and a degree of faith that there were people in New Jersey who would support an organization that believed in the important role government must play if everyone is to have a shot at prosperity; that the market alone could not deliver for everyone; that civil society requires a vibrant public sector.
That faith was rewarded more times over than I can count. NJPP grew into a real presence in New Jersey’s public affairs. So many people – a good number of whom I’d never met before — became supporters, staff members, trustees. It was a remarkable journey. Together we made a difference. Governors came and went; party control of the State House changed. But one thing was constant: NJPP’s work was never easy. People don’t run for the legislature to think about taxes, let alone raise them. And living off the generosity of others is no cure for insomnia. As my wife Janice would tell people, “My husband runs a nonprofit…and it’s not profitable.”
But if it wasn’t easy, it was intensely gratifying.
For the past three and a half years I’ve been at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. My primary job is to help the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative, a network of 41 state-level groups doing what NJPP does (including NJPP).
Now I have a front row seat to view how tough it is in states across the country. Time was, people who ran for governor promising to cut taxes took the oath of office and turned into responsible stewards of their states’ future. Today they hold fast to irrational economic theories and insist cutting taxes and reducing investments in education, transportation and everything else will create jobs. It’s like saying your car will go faster if you take out the engine.
The recession devastated state revenues. States spend less than they used to, even as school enrollments rise and more people lose private health insurance. Transportation systems deteriorate; college tuitions price out smart kids. And still many in high office tell us the mess was caused by states spending too much. The argument against state government made by so many people in state government is as relentless as it is unfounded and well-funded.
So is NJPP still needed? More than ever.
The 15th anniversary celebration will mark a joyous milestone but its more important purpose will be to help build a foundation to support all the important work that is yet to come.
I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and fellow battlers for economic justice October 14 at the Heldrich in New Brunswick. I hope you’ll be there.
Jon Shure is Director of State Fiscal Strategies at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington DC. He was President of New Jersey Policy Perspective from 1997 to 2009.
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