Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Restructuring New Jersey's Future"

With Rep. Rush Holt, Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh of West Windsor, and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes in attendance, Corzine held a town hall meeting entitled "Restructuring New Jersey's Future" at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor earlier this evening. The Governor was brief in his opening remarks, mentioning that he'd just given a long speech the day before, and let most of the evening be led by questions.

Two themes emerged with the questions: First, people were concerned about how the proposed 4% cap on property tax increases would affect their town's ability to provide services, especially with so many unfunded state mandates they must shoulder. Boards of Education have been cutting their spending already since voters are unwilling to pass budgets; how will towns live within a 4% cap? Corzine answered that there would be budget items excluded from the cap, but they were "still working hard at negotiating" the details of the proposal. He also mentioned how he would like to give towns the ability to add revenue raisers, such as impact fees, but hadn't been able to get the legislature on board with it. Corzine also repeated several times that he wants the state aid formula amended to be "per child, not per zip code," so school boards that have received flat funding for years might see an increase.

The second theme was state workers being concerned about a loss of their benefits. Corzine reminded each person who questioned this that negotiated and agreed benefits are non-forfeitable. Workers with 5 years in shouldn't see any impact. A current Turnpike employee who will soon retire was assured that his pension benefits would be assured even if the Turnpike is sold or leased out. Showing his financial background, Corzine took some time to explain why the pension has spread some of its savings into higher risk investments. He was also quick to point out that even if benefits ware changed for new hired employees, that won't make a huge impact on our state budget- "This budget won't be balanced on the backs of the state workers."

When questioned about town and school district consolidation, the governor reiterated his support for the county superintendent pilot program and his support to offer incentives to towns to consolidate to take advantage of economies of scale. But he was clear that this is a democracy and if towns declined to join together he didn't support economic punishment.

When questioned about medical marijuana use (S-88 and A-933, perpetually in committee,) Corzine stated that he did support it but he was clear that it was not a priority at this time. He did mention support for universal health care and needing to get coverage for the 1.3 million in Our Fair State who have no health insurance.

"Mad as Hell" was how Gov. Corzine expressed his feelings about extending Our Fair State's National Guard's time in Iraq and more call-ups of reservists. Amen to that.

Overall, Corzine stuck with the same underlying points that he made in his State of the State address the day before, stressing the ballancing of interests in the common good. The questions from attendees were more specific and much less angry than I've seen at town hall forums like this in the past; almost as if these folks realize that he gets it, and is really working to balance the wants and needs of Our Fair State.

(MCCC's cable channel 26 ran their tape of the forum shortly after it ended. I'm not sure when/if they will run it again; if I find out when they will, I'll post the info.) (Cross-posted on Blue Jersey)

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