Thursday, March 09, 2006

Regional Community Dialogue- Central NJ edition

Last night, I and a few hundred other concerned citizens in Central NJ attended the Governor's "Regional Community Dialogue" (read: semi-scripted town hall meeting) at Monmouth University. Attendence was so large that the meeting was moved to Pollak Auditorium at the last minute. Attendees included State Senator Ellen Karcher and Assemblyman Michael Panter.

The first portion of the evening were opening remarks by the Governor, and a presentation by State Treasurer Bradley Abelow, whose powerpoint presentation is here. He stressed that this is a bipartisan mess in the making, and will need to be a bipartisan effort in the clean-up. 75% of our state budget goes to State Aid and Grants; only 18% total goes to State services and Employees. Of State Aid, 82% goes to schools. Politicians talk a good "clean up corruption and waste" game, but if we fired every single state employee and quit services, it still wouldn't fix the problem. How's that for sobering?

In his comments, Gov. Corzine named some of the strategies he intends to employ to fill the $4.6(ish) billion hole in the budget, including reducing political employees by 400, state hiring freeze, improving technology and efficiency, bulk buying strategies for pharmecuticals and greater generic usage in state plans, and looking at programs for "outcome-based management"; eliminating programs that aren't working, as well as turning a critical eye to school and municipal aid packages.

(The Xpatriated Texan, who attended the Dialogue in the North on Tuesday, did a more comprehensive summary here of the financial issues facing Our Fair State as outlined by the Governor and Treasurer. The Asbury Park Press write-up is here. )

The evening was then opened up for questions. Of course, questions were asked about the funding of the Transportation Trust Fund proposals, of which many have been critical, like me. Abelow made a distinction between borrowing for capital expenditures such as roads and borrowing to ballence the budget. He also reiterated the point that we need funds in order to get our federal matching money. Gov. Corzine stated that he thinks gas taxes should be dedicated to transportation, and he got a massive round of applause.

Questions posed by audience memebers were very broad:

  • S1701, the law signed by Gov. McGreevey to restrict school budgets, was questioned and Gov. Corzine said directly that he will not be asking to repeal it, but that there may be a need to ammend it in order to consider exceptions, especially for energy costs, and the ability to retain surplusses for capital costs.
  • When asked about incentives for increasing maunfacturing industry in Our Fair State, the governor pretty much said he's not going to try. There are other industries, such as Technology, bio-tech, research and development, even solar development, that are more important in driving our economy.
  • Abbot district funding was questioned. "Throwing money at problems isn't an answer," and basically they didn't have an answer for what they will be doing about it now.
  • The governor was asked if he would support selling the air space over NJT tracks for business or residential development. Basically, there may be applications for this idea, but it's a one-shot revenue trick that can't be used to ballence the budget.
  • Can the state help municipalities share services? "YES. Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes," said the governor. He trumpeted the aid of incentives to do this, such as increasing aid to municipalities who "trade a little bit of autonomy for a little bit of efficiency."
  • Teacher pay and pensions were questioned. Treasurer Abelow noted that pension and pay are negotiated in advance, and in some cases are law. In the future they may be able to be worked with but not for this budget. Gov. Corzine noted that we must fund it fully, the state hasn't been making proper contributions for years.
The overall tone of the evening was, well, dire. The Governor and the Treasurer both stated several times that we are in a crisis, that serious cuts were going to have to be made, and tax increases are definitely possible. Temporary tax increases are on the table. The governor commented while discussing the TTF problem something to the effect of not wanting to raise gas taxes in the light of other revenue increases this year. In other words, no gas tax hike now because they're going up somewhere else. To be blunt, after a while I felt as if much of the presentation and answers were simply to prepare us for big slams when the budget comes out.

When asked about whether there is concern about the fiscal status of our state universities, the governor quipped, "I haven't seen anything in New Jersey that we shouldn't be concerned about the fiscal status of." The forum last night certainly backed up that assesment. However, tough measures are exactly what are needed to get our fiscal house in order, and this budget will probably be full of them.

Note- there will be another "Regional Community Dialogue" tonight at Rowan University. As of 3:30 you could still RSVP online. I encourage you to consider it if you live down that way- it was an enlightening evening. Also, the Governor made reference that there may be more of these community dialogues in reference to Property Tax changes down the road.

1 comment:

jay lassiter said...

hey sharon
this sounds like a good update. I missed the presentation at rowan and i was disappointed.
You and Xpat did a great job catching me up to speed. I reckon by the time he made it to s. NJ he was totally brint out anyway.