When I worked in the Governor’s Office, one of the strategies we employed during difficult budgetary times was to show that things were even worse in other parts of the country.
One year, I authored an op-ed article pointing out that Arkansas was eliminating scholarships to state colleges, Arizona was closing parks, Maine was raising its gas tax, and Kansas was doubling franchise fees for companies conducting business in the state.
On paper, demonstrating that the grass is not always greener on the other side sounded like a good strategy. But in practice, its impact was minimal. No matter what draconian actions were being taken elsewhere, New Jerseyans were not about to forget about taxes and fees, cutbacks in programs and services, and the use of one-shot revenue sources to balance the budget.
But things could be different this year thanks to our neighbors to the north.
In case you haven’t been following the adventures of the New York State Senate over the past week or so, lawmakers in the Empire State have engaged in a bizarre series of activities that make politics in New Jersey look good by comparison. As former New York mayor Edward Koch told The New York Times. “I believe it’s not only disgraceful, but it makes New York look like a banana republic.”
Democrats held a 32-30 majority in the New York Senate until June 8 when two of their members joined with the 30 Republicans to form a new majority. But before the new majority could vote to elect one of its members to lead the Senate, Democrats abruptly adjourned the session. Republicans then argued that the session was not properly adjourned and proceeded to elect a new Senate President and Majority Leader. Meanwhile, Democrats maintained that the vote was illegal and that they still held the leadership posts.
The new Republican-led coalition attempted to conduct business, but was unable to do so because the bills that required action had been locked in a desk by Democratic lawmakers. In addition, Democrats asked Governor David Paterson to change the locks on the Senate chamber (a request that was denied), and one of the Democratic Senators who had joined with the Republicans to form the new majority returned to the Democratic caucus, creating a 31-31 deadlock among the 62 members in the upper House.
So why might this situation be a more effective tool for New Jersey strategists than the drastic fiscal steps that other states were taking several years ago?
To paraphrase Dorothy: it’s because this isn’t Kansas anymore. It’s one thing to run off a list of tax hikes and funding cuts from unfamiliar states that many New Jerseyans may never visit, let alone take the time to scrutinize their budgets. It’s much different when the action is taking place closer to home. Not only do we share a border with New York, we also share a media market. With all respect to the news organizations and journalists in our state, the truth is large numbers of New Jerseyans obtain their news from New York television, which has given extensive coverage to the battle over leadership of the New York Senate – as have New York newspapers and radio, which also have sizeable audiences in the Garden State.
All of this creates an opportunity for Governor Jon Corzine and the Democratic majority in the New Jersey Legislature as they put the finishing touches on this year’s state budget. Given the current fiscal climate, the budget may not offer much in the way of good news (even with the unanticipated $400 million from the tax amnesty program), but it will look much better in the context of what is transpiring in New York State. New Jersey Democrats can rightfully argue that – even if citizens are unhappy with components of the budget – at least they made tough decisions and managed to enact a budget on time, in difficult economic times, and without the bedlam taking place in our neighboring state, where legislators cannot even agree on who is in charge.
Of course, New Jersey Republicans can just as easily point to 2006 when Democrats were unable to come to agreement on the budget before the June 30 Constitutional deadline, leading to a shutdown of state government. But that was three years ago, and people’s memories are short – even shorter when the images of the chaos in New York are being emblazoned in their minds by the New York-based media organizations from which many of our residents obtain their news and information.
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