2008’s Top Public Policy Developments

It is that time again when lists of the year’s top stories begin to emerge in newspapers and magazines, on radio and TV stations, and online in websites, blogs and emails. My list is a little different. Instead of news stories, I decided to take a crack at identifying the top public policy developments that took place in New Jersey during 2008.

This poses somewhat of a different challenge. Rather than selecting the top stories from a group of existing news reports, it requires speculating about the long-term impact of decisions made this year. And that is made even more difficult by the unusual and unexpected twists that can alter our future.

Consider for a moment the case of Charles Ingram Courtenay Wood, 2nd Earl of Halifax. When Neville Chamberlain resigned as British Prime Minister in 1940, Halifax was considered a likely successor, but Winston Churchill was selected for the post instead. As Alan Bennett relates in The History Boys, on the afternoon the decision was taken, Halifax chose to go the dentist instead. “If Halifax had had better teeth, we might have lost the war,” the Dakin character in Bennett’s film remarks.

So barring the likes of an unforeseen trip to the dentist, here are what I consider the most significant public policy developments that took place in New Jersey this year:

The Disappearing Media

The Record decided to close its main office and rely on “mobile reporters”; the New York Times shut down its State House Bureau and severely curtailed its coverage of New Jersey; the Star-Ledger nearly went up for sale and only survived by buying out some 200 employees; Gannett has laid off reporters at newspapers around the state, and retirements at New Jersey Network are shaking up the structure of the television station.

Cutbacks, layoffs and consolidation generally result in less scrutiny by news organization and coverage that is more homogenous. This is bad news for a state such as New Jersey, where an aggressive press corps has played an important role in years past. But for those who see the changing media landscape as a glass that is half full, the events of 2008 also can present an opportunity for New Jersey to emerge as a leader by developing a new model for the delivery of news and information in the 21st Century. The jury still is out on this one.

The ARC Tunnel

Governor Corzine’s ambitious and controversial plan to fund transportation infrastructure projects and pay down state debt with revenue generated by rate increases on state toll roads dominated the headlines in the early part of the year, but the project failed to gain the support it needed. Instead a more modest plan to raise tolls was enacted with much less fanfare in the fall.

While the immediate effect is the increase in tolls, the long-term impact involves a new rail tunnel to New York that will double capacity and help the regional economy. A portion of the revenue from the state’s toll roads will be used to help fund the tunnel. The tunnel is about 10 years away and there are questions about its funding on both sides of the Hudson, but if it becomes a reality, it will have a major impact on transportation, commuting, and jobs in the region.

Progressive Legislation

New Jersey cemented its position as one of the most progressive states in the nation this year by enacting laws for universal health care and paid family leave. This came on the heels of abolishing the death penalty and legalizing same sex civil unions in 2007. With gay marriage legislation on the horizon for 2009, the state is likely to remain at the forefront of progressive initiatives for years to come.

Public Pension and Health Benefit Reform

Efforts to reform New Jersey’s pension and health benefit system had their fair share of critics, but the legislation enacted in 2008 will result in substantial dividends for the state over the long-term. The Governor’s Office estimates the reforms will save $6.4 billion through 2022.

The changes, which include a higher retirement age and new income eligibility for enrollment in the major pension systems, are in addition to a series of statutory changes resulting from contract negotiations.

Higher Education

Higher education could be one of the biggest losers from this year’s economic downturn. Think about it. If the choice comes down to putting food on the table or paying college tuitions, financially-strapped families will opt to feed their bellies and not their minds.

Likewise, the state is taking a similar approach with its limited funds and the many programs and services it must finance. Higher education funding, while considered important, has become a target for cuts during each budget cycle.

In addition, the New Jersey Higher Education Students Assistance Authority has decided it no longer will allow students to defer payments until after graduation, and the state is in the process of cutting back NJ STARS, which rewarded good academic performance with free tuition and scholarships. Add in the growing impression that New Jersey colleges are fiscally irresponsible – a result of controversies involving the likes of Rutgers athletics and UMDNJ — and the prospects are slim that the state will be providing higher education institutions with additional public monies.

This is unfortunate because, in the long run, it means more than just the fact that less kids will go to college. As Hall Institute Trustee Robert P. Haney Jr. wrote in a white paper on higher education costs:

An educated, highly productive population benefits New Jersey in the form of increased tax revenues and decreased spending on social programs like welfare. Educated citizens also make better health and retirement choices, further reducing the demand on public resources. New Jersey exceeds the national average in personal and family income in part because we have a larger proportion of households and families headed by parents with college degrees. Holding a college or graduate degree increases average household income by 35 percent.

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