Op-Ed: The Dangers of the 'Jersey Comeback' Fantasy

This op-ed appeared in the July 15, 2012 edition of the Star-Ledger.

The Christie narrative goes like this: I inherited a Democratic-manufactured mess. I set to work to make tough choices, cut spending, reform pensions and reduce property tax burdens. It worked, so now it’s time to reward everyone with a cut in tax rates and to declare New Jersey the national model for fiscal integrity and effective bipartisanship. I call it the “New Jersey Comeback.”

But the “Comeback” is a slogan without substance or documentation. Instead, the evidence is overwhelming that New Jersey is still crawling out of the Great Recession:

• New Jersey’s jobless rate is fifth-highest in the country, down from 19th-highest when Gov. Chris Christie took office.

• In 2011, New Jersey was one of only six states with an economy that did not grow, ranking us 47th in the country.

• The rating agencies give New Jersey the third-lowest credit rating. It it weren’t for California and Illinois, we’d be dead last.

• The governor’s proposed budget included the largest spending increase and the most optimistic revenue forecast of any state. In just four months, the differences between forecast and actual tax collections have opened a gap in the 2013 budget of no less than $700 million (the administration’s hope) maybe as much as $1.5 billion (the Office of Legislative Services projection) and, possibly, $2 billion-plus (Moody’s warning).

• More New Jersey families are sliding out of the middle class with almost 40 percent of households barely holding on.

This onslaught of bad news is not the stuff of partisan attacks or manipulation of a few negative numbers. The news comes from independent, trusted, dry statistical reports.

“Okay,” you say, “politicians are known to exaggerate and simplify, so what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that the mythical “Comeback” is being used to frame the agenda for New Jersey’s future, but it is an agenda that shrinks our future and blocks the path to restored prosperity.

Let’s be clear: The governor arrived just as the Great Recession hit New Jersey head-on. With Democratic support, he cut spending, passed pension and benefit reforms, imposed ceilings on property taxes and spoke out against gimmicks such as one-shot revenues and borrowing from our kids to pay this year’s bills. Then, he forgot his own sermon.

Like his predecessors, the governor finds it much easier to fall back on precisely the one-shot revenues and borrowing that put New Jersey in such a perilous state. His budget for 2013 is a replay of the practices he condemned and claimed to have conquered. In this, he is joined by the legislative majority, which accepted the Christie revenue projections.

The problem for New Jersey goes far beyond next year’s budget. “Comeback” deceives. It tells us that everything is pretty much taken care of and it’s time to invoke the panacea of tax cuts.

“Comeback” focuses our attention on the wrong problems and wrong solutions:

Distributing relatively small amounts to millions of households will not restore the state’s competitiveness or attract the kinds of jobs that made New Jersey a perennial leader in income and wealth.

“Comeback” ignores New Jersey’s strongest advantages. Talented, well-educated, enterprising people want to raise their families in pleasant, vibrant communities that enjoy good transit to New York in the north or Philadelphia in the south. And, that have excellent public schools. Instead of headlining the excellent performance of New Jersey’s students — second only to students in Massachusetts — the Christie administration has spent its time lambasting our schools, using the failure in the poorest neighborhood schools to condemn teachers in schools that are among the best in the nation.

“Comeback” and the tax-cut hysteria combine to divert attention from the economic and intellectual engines represented by New Jersey’s two great research universities, Princeton and Rutgers. While competitor states such as Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Texas have regularly invested in creating centers of research, engineering and innovation, New Jersey has stepped away and encouraged an “every-institution-on-its-own” mentality. The prospect of a modest bond issue for higher education this year is only a belated gesture — welcomed to be sure — at starting to play catch up.

“Comeback” pretends that all is well for most New Jersey families when, in fact, the proportion now struggling to provide bare necessities is growing dramatically. The recent theatrics around tax cuts dealt a cruel blow to poor working families with the governor’s veto of a bill to rescind the tax increase imposed on them alone just two years ago when he scaled back the earned income tax credit.

“Comeback?” We wish it were so.

If our leaders continue to blind us with unsupportable and fictional descriptions of New Jersey’s status and aim their policies at the wrong targets, we will continue to fall further behind.

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